I have been using some form of a slow feeder for several years now. The entire time I had Billy he had feed 24/7. He had a slow feeder, a slow feed net and/or access to pasture.
Now that I have the minis I did not want that to change. Because I thoroughly understand the importance of a horse having access to forage all times of the day and night I knew I wanted that for my minis as well. I have three hay nets, the 70 pound bale nets to be exact.
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 Correct Way to Use Slow-Feeders by Julie Getty, Ph.D.
Horses produce 1.5 liters of stomach acid every hour. Regardless of whether they are eating or not, they are producing stomach acid. This stomach acid can be responsible for stomach ulcers. Saliva can help balance out the stomach acid. Saliva is only produced when the horse chews. So having hay or forage in front of them 24/7 solves this.
Having access to forage also helps with colic. Especially sand colic. It’s been found that having hay in their system will help push the sand out better than the traditional Psylliuym.
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. The Correct Way to Use Slow-Feeders by Julie Getty, Ph.D.
This is shot of my two dry lots. The mares have their own side in front and the boys have their own side in the back. Both dry lots are huge and encourage lots of movement!
It’s a common thought that horses using a slow feeder will be fat and lazy. If they are locked in a small area this is true! If they are not encouraged to move they will stand around and get fat. I am not a fan of using food restriction to manage weight. I think movement is the only way to regulate weight.
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. The Correct Way to Use Slow-Feeders by Julie Getty, Ph.D.
I’ve been witness to people wanting to try the slow feeder, but not having the patience to wait for their horses to self regulate. This can take time if your horse has been used to the starvation diet of one, two or three meals a day. It takes consistency on your part to make sure they are never without hay in their slow feed nets because if they are out for even 10 minutes their brain will switch back into starvation mode and you have to start the process all over again.
They need to be refilled frequently (unless a whole bale size is chosen). Horses who run out of hay (even for 10 minutes) will never get the message that hay is always there and will not self-regulate. The Correct Way to Use Slow-Feeders by Julie Getty, Ph.D.
The girls checking to see if I’m going to give them any more food!
Another important point, from an equine body workers point-of-view, is to be sure your slow feeders are at ground level. Do not hang them so the horse has to reach up to eat. This is not natural for a horse and causes their jaws to misalign, as well as causing them to have to twist their head and neck when eating which causes the TMJ and the poll to go out. This is very painful and can definitely affect your horses attitude about being ridden or driven.
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. The Correct Way to Use Slow-Feeders by Julie Getty, Ph.D.
My ponies look great having access to feed 24/7. They all got fat at first and then leveled out. Bonnie is still in the process of regulating, though she will walk away from the hay nets now and hang out. She and Sky can share a net without any food aggression at all. I am very pleased with how my ponies look and how calm they are about food.
Sky is a 13 year old mama. She hasn’t been driven for about 7 years and has just been a pasture pet. I know that when I start driving her she will tuck back up again!
Bonnie is a 4 year old easy keeper. She is still self regulating and will slim down when I start playing with her more.
Captain Planet is an 8 year old gelding who has always been a pasture pet. Even when he was on the “starvation” diet of two feedings a day he looked exactly like this! He has been on a slow feeder for over 2 years now.
Zorro is the baby. He is a yearling and in his awkward gawky stage right now. Every day his belly changes depending on how much he runs around that day!
I have at least two if not three hay nets out at all times. I will toss out a flake here and there too. They also have access to pasture for no more than 4 hours in the early morning hours. I get up at 4:30 to let them out and bring them in by 8:30 to ensure they are not out when it starts to heat up and the sugars make their way up the grass stem. They are fed 1/2-3/4 of a cup of Crypto Aero once a day, in the morning as well.
With some patience and education you can be successful at using a slow feeder for your horses too!
Edited on 8/22/18:
After having the minis for almost three years I will say that the key to slow feeding successfully is making SURE your hay is low sugar low starch. DO NOT feed an alfalfa/grass hay 24/7. DO NOT feed an untested hay 24/7 without expecting your minis and ponies to get fat. They just will. Now that I have switched to all low sugar low starch hay my mini and ponies look really good. They still have bellies but they are no longer fat.
Edited on 9/18/19:
I am left with only Sky and Zorro and after having their blood tested this summer I found out they were running the risk of having fatty liver disease. Because they were too fat. I had to put them on a diet. 1 1/2% of their body weight in feed a day and that is all they can have. No more grass. I feed them 2.5 #'s of hay in the morning along with their breakfast and then 2.5 #'s of hay in the evening. I do give them a snack hay net before I work them each day. On days I don't work them they do not get the afternoon snack. So allowing them access to low sugar low hay 24/7 was not working. I'm so sad that they have to have a feed schedule.