Slow feeding was invented to reduce horse’s wasting of hay and this was done by stopping them from digging into the hay and throwing it out on the ground. As a byproduct of that eating holes was made smaller forcing the horse to pull out hay instead of sticking his head into the hay eating times was extended. This was however not intentional and gave only marginal health effects on already sound horses and absolutely no health effects on horses with feeding-related health issues. Producers that do not develop based on their own experience but instead just copy what others have developed (i.e. almost everyone) is still at this stage.
Let us call this first stage “slow feeding 1.0”. Slow feeding 1.0 was Small Mesh Hay Nets (SMHN) with mesh sizes between 3 and 4.5cm and a capacity of up to 10kg of hay. The purpose was to reduce the amount of hay the horses were wasting and that it did but to be honest not much more. The best contribution we still have from these early models are the round bale nets that do work very well. (So well that they actually qualify for slow feeding 3.0 as one of the still most efficient solutions ever.)
The preliminary works leading to slow feeding 1.0 contained various models based on metal grids but they should be left resting in peace because they have no positive characteristics compared to soft nets. I did make numerous models but the hay usually got stuck, the grid tilted and/or broke. I would also like to point out the risk of excessive wear on teeth and gum against the hard metal.
Please let us also forget all strange constructions you can see on Internet where horses are forced to eat from totally awkward angles like from the bottom of a hanging barrel or higher than their own shoulders. Horses are made to eat straight in front of them from the top down and never higher than with their neck straight out. We need neither unnatural eating angles nor time-consuming filling work now when there are so much better solutions on the market both for inside and outside use.
We who did study the slow feeding concept closely eventually noticed increased harmony in herds of sound horses enjoying netted round bales. This was incorrectly interpreted by ignorant speculators as that all SMHN solutions gave the same result which is far from true. It is the continuous access that creates the positive changes, not the small meshes. This means that slow feeding 1.0 solutions that do not let the horse have continuous access to the hay have absolutely no other value than reducing the amount of hay that the horse waste.
The positive psychological changes, like increased harmony, stamina, performance and decreased stress, anger, fighting behavior, bad temper, nervousness, and unwanted behavior are explained by the proven fact that most every horse that do not graze continuously suffers from EGUS (Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome).
- 86% = 297 of 345 horses Begg & Sullivan, 2003
- 73% = 52 of 71 horses Bezdekova et al. 2007
- 71% = 132 of 187 horses Murray & Grodinsky, 1989
- ”Boyd et al” published a study 1988 showing that horse prefers to eat 68% of the time between 8 pm and 4 am but only 31% of the time between 8 am and noon.
- Videla & Andrews 2009 showed in a study that 75% of the horses being fed twice per day suffered ulcers but “only” 58% of the horses being fed three times per day suffered ulcers.
This makes it clear that traditional feeding routines are not only wrong but also dangerous to horses.
EGUS thrives as soon as the horse is deprived of eating for more than 4 consecutive hours. It doesn’t matter if this is during the day or night. EGUS is created when the horse’s continuous production of burning stomach acid fills the stomach to a level above where the protective glands protect the stomach wall from the burning acid. The passing feed is supposed to both keep the level of stomach acid constant and mix with the acid to make it less harmful. The reason competing horses are over-represented in the statistics is because when the horse tighten his body during a performance the stomach is compressed which presses the acid even higher up the stomach walls. This makes it extremely important that competing and performing horses are allowed to eat prior to performing.
What well working slow feeding does is slowing down the eating to make it possible for the horse to have continuous access to his hay without overeating. Without continuous access, slow feeding is only waste reduction. The objective with real slow feeding is to reteach the horse to eat in a natural way, taking natural pauses but that will never work until the horse has forgotten that there ever can be an end to the supply of hay and that can never happen until the supply of hay is completely seamless. A horse that doesn’t see feed in front of him when he is hungry will believe he is going to starve to death which will make him eat even faster and more the next time he gets a chance. A horse that gets the chance to eat whenever he feels he needs it will retain a harmless level of diluted stomach acid in the stomach and he will not suffer EGUS. It is easy to understand that a horse suffering stomach ulcers cannot perform his best but it is very difficult, if not impossible, to detect EGUS from the outside since there is nothing to compare with when almost all horses suffer from it. EGUS doesn’t always give visible signs but always suffering.
The next step in the development of well working slow feeding, let us call it “slow feeding 2.0”, came when different mesh sizes and a combination of mesh sizes were used to improve the possibility to alter the eating speed to reteach suffering and frustrated horses to eat in a natural way. Using mesh sizes below 3cm can work well to slow the eating down if the hay or haylage is soft but coarse strands might block the openings and stop the eating completely. Doubled nets have both been used and produced to slow down greedy eaters. There are two risks with making it too hard for the horse to eat; the first one is that he can give up completely and the second one is that he might become frustrated and break the net to get to the hay faster. A frustrated horse can break anything, even steel constructions. There are multi-layer nets on the market that are giving the horse owner almost infinite possibilities to alter the eating complexity.
Today we are at “slow feeding 3.0” which is defined as:
“Arranging the horses feeding in a way that let him, with natural eating angles, have continuous access to his hay without eating too fast or too much”.
- If the eating angle is not natural, it is not slow feeding 3.0
- If the access is not continuous, it is not slow feeding 3.0.
- If the horse keeps eating too fast or too much, it is not slow feeding 3.0.
A study made by The Swedish University of Agriculture showed that filling a SlowFeeding 3.0 device twice per day did not take more than 1 minute more than feeding on the floor 3 times per day. It still reduced the starvation period during the night from 6 to less than 2 hours (some horses had seamless access) for the horse even though the second (and last) filling of the SlowFeeder for the day was done at 4.30 pm and the third serving on the floor was done at 8 pm. The reasons they didn’t reach seamless access on all horses might very well have been because they limited the amount of hay to 1.5% (dry substance) of the horse’s body weight which in my opinion is the limit for survival not for well being. The other possible reason could have been hat the study only had a duration of 2 weeks and my experience is that some horses need more than that to be comfortable with new feeding routines.
Flat nets hanging on the wall or between poles are usually very time-consuming and considered hard work to fill. The eating angles are crocked and unnatural. If you decide to go this way make sure to buy one that is large enough and never needs to be filled to capacity because that is always an enormous waste of time and much too much work.
Flat nets that are not mounted on the wall are marginally easier to fill but still not easy. I would never leave a net laying on the floor or ground for the horses to step, stand pee and poop on. It is also much easier for a horse to break a net he can stand on compared to one that swings and finally, do consider the risk of horses getting their feet and or shoes tangled.
If you are bringing the net to the hay for filling, the SlowFeeding Hay Sacks are much easier to fill.
My all-time favorite is the round bale net but it must be a net fitted from the ground up.
Flatten the bottom of the net where you want the bale, put the bale on top, lift the sides of the net and pull up the thin baling net, close the opening with a large hook or shackle. Best is if the top of the net can be fixed at the height just above the top of the bale. There is no need to readjust this height.
Round bale nets fitted from the top down are not a preferred solution for two reasons:
- Horses often try to get their heads in under the net and a lot of time must be used to stop this.
- A whole lot of net will lay on top of the hay when most hay is gone.
When you want to feed outside but a round-bale feels too big or you want to check the hay before making it available to the horses, there are a couple of good solutions:
Take a really large SlowFeeding Hay Sack and dump it in any container you can get your hands on :-). The net in the picture takes 45 kg = 112 lbs if loaded to capacity.
If you live in Europe you can build a box based on a European shipping pallet and pallet collars. If you choose this solution, be sure to screw it together very firmly or the horses will soon pick it apart.
If you don’t have access to Euro-pallet collars you can easily build a hay container of 60 x 120 x 60cm = 2′ x 4′ x 2′ from 1 sheet of plywood.
When talking inside the box feeding there are finally some really good solutions on the market:
The tricks to getting a slow feeding net to last are:
- to let it move when horses are eating from it (no stretched nets)
- making sure it never runs empty
Creating a natural eating angle means:
- letting the horse eat straight forward and from the top down.
slow feeding 3.0 combines large capacity with quick and easy filling and loose laying nets on top of the hay.