Benefits to Horses of Free Feeding and Slow Feeding

One of the biggest detriments to the domesticated equine is the loss of environment that allows them to forage for food as they were designed to do.  Studies suggest that, in the wild, horses spend 90% of their time eating; or, walking in search of food.  Scarce supply and many miles of walking aids in digestion, prevents gorging, colic, ulcers, and other digestive upsets.  It also prevents founder, laminitic episodes and protects the natural metabolic function.  Insulin resistant, diabetic, foundered and laminitic individuals are rare in nature, and quickly removed from the gene pool through the predator/prey relationship. 

The horses’ gradual migration from the country, as a beast of burden, into the suburbs, boarding barns, and the life of a boutique pet, or a selectively bred, uber performance horse has further complicated the problems.  Now, the horse is the at the mercy of the owner’s busy schedule, competition circuits, convenience foods, tight budgets, costs of labor,  and availability of affordablegood quality hay.  Free feeding and grazing time has been reduced to the now standard two meals a day. Go figure, a grazing animal getting fewer meals than the humans who own them.  But, through it all, the digestive needs, and gut function of the horse remains unchanged.   

Behaviorally, we observe the stress of this captivity as stable vices like cribbing, wood chewing, weaving, kicking, pawing, etc.   We see ulcers, colic, laminitis, founder, insulin resistance, diabetes, metabolic disease, obesity, and weight loss.  Granted, there are other contributing factors to mind/body contentment in horses, but many of the list above, become non-issues, when horses are allowed to eat as nature intended them.

So, what to do?  Feeding smaller meals more often and increasing turn out time is a good start. From a stable manager’s point of view, this raises the costs both in labor and time spent. 

Free feeding is an option, although, it is difficult to do in many respects. Wall mounted hay racks or hay nets – even slow feeder nets are never my first choice, simply because they put the horses’ heads and necks in an unnatural position for eating, causing them to reach up and sideways, chew with their heads above their torso, and swallow downhill.  Naturally, horses graze with their heads down, and swallow uphill.    Finding suitably clean, and ‘poor’ enough quality hay is one of the biggest hurdles. Too much of a good thing won’t solve the problem.   A full time diet of premium quality, high octane hay is unnecessary, and cost prohibitive due to the amount of waste. It is not a financially attractive solution for most horse owners and caregivers. 

But, slow feeding as an adjunct to free feeding provides the best way to mimic Mother Nature, without leaving the farm. 

Begin with slowing down intake, by introducing a slow feeder, and increasing movement throughout the day. (This does not include training and exercise time.  During induced exercise, the gut slows down while the body directs blood flow and oxygen to the muscles.  When the training session is complete, the body’s priority returns once again to digestion.)  Walking between feeding stations, water source, and shelter throughout the day allows them to somewhat regain their natural environment. 

Next, fine tune your forage choices. Provide enough quality have to meet the caloric requirements of the horse, along with enough hay that is clean, low carbohydrate, feeder hay to keep him busy the rest of the day. 

I have been feeding my horses with slow feeders for going on three years now.  My experience has been extremely positive.  Our feeders are large capacity, and keep the horses content for up to two days between fill ups.  I have had tobrain train myself not to worry about getting home exactly at feeding time in the evenings, and the fact that they seem to be going through much less hay overall, compared to before we began using them.  The amount of waste has been reduced to what I waste filling the feeders, and the fines, dirt, sticks, etc. that occur in all hay that get sifted out into the bottom of the feeders. Due to the nature of my work, we have a wide range of body types, health challenges, and ‘special needs’ horses through our facility.  After a short time getting acclimated to how to eat out of a slow feeder, all are thriving.  The fatties are slimming down; the harder keepers are keeping up, since there is always food in front of them.  The ‘competitive’ eaters are not as aggressive, and the ones down the pecking order aren’t eating under as much stress.  Probably the most impressive results have been with the IR and diabetic beings.  We use to soak the hay, but, by reducing insulin dumps and sugar spikes, through continuous feeding, we really haven’t found the need to soak anymore.