The Correct Way to Use Slow-Feeders
By Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.
Forage is the foundation of every equine’s
diet and needs to flow steadily through the digestive tract. Gaps without
forage can lead to ulcers, colic, behavioral issues, stall vices, gorging,
choke, cribbing, and even laminitis. Truly, the only way to avoid these
problems is to allow your horse steady access to forage, free-choice, all day
and all night.
The purpose of a slow-feeding system is to
simulate grazing. Horses in a natural setting eat small amounts of forage as
they wander in search of the next tasty morsel. They eat virtually all day and
night, taking time to socialize and rest every so often for a few minutes at a
time. When they know that they always have access to forage, they become calm
and relaxed, rest more often, and walk away from their hay, knowing that it
will still be there when they return. In other words, they “self-regulate” and
eat only what they need to maintain a healthy body condition.
Slow feeders allow the horse access to hay
and the ability to “graze” for most of the day, yet only consume a healthy
amount of hay.
Forage restriction is incredibly stressful.
Why should this matter? Because stress causes the release of the hormone
cortisol, which in turn leads to elevated insulin. When insulin is high, it
tells the body to store fat. Your goal? Get rid of the stress. Feed an
appropriate forage (low in sugar and starch) free-choice and allow the horse to
tell you how much he needs. There are some horses, however, who gain weight
very quickly when given forage free-choice. The reason has to do with the
sluggish metabolic rate they’ve developed over time. When forage is parceled
out only a few times a day, the horse responds by going into “survival mode,”
where his metabolic rate significantly slows down in an attempt to conserve
body fat. A cycle of ever-increasing obesity is created that can be reversed
only through exercise and removing the hormonal fat-storing response that
forage restriction creates.
Slow-feeders, when used properly, are an
excellent way to reduce stress. As their name suggests, they slow down the rate
of consumption by providing hay through small openings. When slow feeders are
kept full, they allow the horse to graze whenever he wants, thereby encouraging
the horse to eat less and still have free access to forage.
The best approach is feeding off the ground
Chewing with the head low is more in line
with the horse’s natural physiology, creating even pressure on the teeth and
allowing the jaw bone to move freely in all directions. Furthermore, the muscles,
joints, tendons, ligaments and bone structure are not stressed when horses can
grab hay in a straight downward motion. Eating with their heads down also
protects their eyes and respiratory tract against mold spores and dust and
provides for better nasal drainage.
Gradually allow your horse to become
accustomed to this method of feeding by placing some hay in the feeder as well
as loose on the ground next to it. After a few days, most horses will get
the hang of the slow-feeder. Some take longer, so don’t force the issue; let
your horse get used to it at his own pace.
Supervise your horse during this period,
watching for signs of frustration. Frustration is a form of stress and needs to
I recommend 1.5 to 1.75 inches for a
full-sized horse; anything smaller may cause undo frustration; fatigue can also
set in, causing the horse to stop eating.
If the horse is shod, the net must be secured
within a bin.
laid on the ground, they must either be loose (expect them to get dirty) or
be securely mounted so the horse cannot get a foot or its head caught
below the feeder.