Slowfeeders come in all shapes and sizes. If you translate ‘slow feeder’ literally, it means ‘something/someone who eats slowly’. And that is precisely the purpose of these products: to make your horse take a longer time to eat its roughage. There are other advantages, but also disadvantages to using a slow feeder. Before we go into that, we answer the question: “Why use a slow feeder?”
The basis of a horse’s diet consists of roughage such as hay, haylage and/or grass. Its entire gastrointestinal system is geared towards this. It is therefore important that a horse receives sufficient good quality roughage. In nature, a horse is busy foraging for 14 to 16 hours a day. It eats small amounts of food throughout the day, mainly grass. In horses that are stabled for a large part of the day, their diet often looks a bit different. In our country, with our fields, it is practically impossible to let all horses graze on a pasture 16 hours a day. Especially if you also want to make sure that your horse gets enough energy and the right nutrients. That is why horses are often fed hay or haylage.
On average, a horse takes 40 minutes to eat one kilogram of hay. A 600 kilogram horse needs an average of 10 kilograms of hay per day. That means that in one day he will be eating hay for about 6 to 7 hours. That is a lot shorter than in nature. Pasture grazing or straw bedding may already help to extend the duration of the foraging behaviour, but you could also opt for a slow feeder. As we indicated in the introduction, a slow feeder is designed to make it less easy for the horse to get to its roughage, so that it takes longer to eat. This is good for its health and well-being.
There are several types of slow feeders on the market, but you can also build one yourself. In general, you can divide slow feeders into hay nets and hay boxes. There are many different variations on this. We will now discuss the general advantages and disadvantages of these two types of slow feeders. First, there are the hay nets. You can buy standard hay nets, but there are also hay bags (one open pocket at the front), hay pillows (pillowcase type with mesh on the top, may be used on the floor) and large hay nets that can be placed over an entire bale of hay. You also see large nets that are stretched between two posts.
The mesh (openings in the net) may vary in size. The smaller the mesh, the more effort the horse will have to put in to get to the roughage and the longer the feeding time will take. Pay attention to the behaviour of your horse. Some horses become very frustrated when they are having difficulty accessing the roughage. In that case it may be wise to use a slow feeder with a larger mesh, for example. The advantage of hay nets is that they are relatively cheap and less roughage is wasted. The disadvantage is that hay nets are often attached very high because of the risk that horses (especially those with shoes) may get caught in the net. This prevents the horse from eating in its natural eating position (with its head down), which means that dust can easily get into the airways. In addition, the molars may wear unevenly due to this eating position.
Another option is a hay box. You can purchase a hay box or assemble one yourself. A hay box is often a bin made of, for example, plastic or wood. You place something with a mesh on top of it, such as a wire mat or a net. The same applies again: the smaller the mesh, the more difficult the roughage intake. The advantage of these boxes is that they can often hold more roughage at one time, compared to some hay nets. You can easily place a hay box in a paddock or pasture and here too there will be less loss of roughage. The big advantage is that the horses will eat more in a natural eating position, because the box is at ground level. If you want to buy a ready-made hay box, it can be quite expensive. Making it yourself is therefore cheaper, but also takes more time. In addition, a proper construction is important. Horses can throw the box around and then you do not want the roughage to be too easily accessible. A hay box may also have a construction with the mesh opening at the front of the bucket. It is then important that the top of the box is closed. You could, for example, make such a type of container from a bin or dumpster. These boxes are easy to fill and the hay remains dry. A disadvantage of this type of box is that the horse has an oblique eating position, it has to tilt its head to get to the hay.
As you can see, every type of slow feeder has its advantages and disadvantages. In any case, always pay attention to the safety of the slow feeder (especially if you make one yourself) and whether it is suitable for the horse. Make sure that there are no sharp protrusions and that the horse cannot get entangled anywhere. Whichever one you choose in the end, and whether you choose one at all, depends on your personal preference, your budget, facilities and type of horse(s).