The darkest time of the year is a perfect opportunity to talk about boredom in horses. Like their humans, when horses have less exercise and less environmental stimulation, it can contribute to health issues such as weight gain, ulcers, stall vices (chewing, pawing, weaving, cribbing), fighting between horses, crabbiness under saddle, and even colic. An increased exercise schedule, more turnout time, utilizing track paddocks, or even adding horse toys are all positive ways to enrich a horse’s life, but sometimes, these things are hard to do mid-winter. Another idea is to try a slow feeder, a means to offer restricted yet free-choice forage for the horse.
Slow feeders are a novel approach to feeding horses in a limited manner so that they only get a small bite each time, thereby stretching out meal time to last longer. In my travels while doing Horses for Clean Water work, I’ve seen a variety of approaches and talked with a number of people who’ve implemented different types of slow feeder systems and are pleased with the results. There are many ways to approach this; I’ll cover a few here.
Horses are designed by nature to eat many small, frequent meals over the course of a day, all day long. Academic research shows us that, left on their own, a horse would eat 18+ hours per day. The easiest way to meet a domesticated horse’s need for continuous forage is to feed smaller, more frequent meals, thereby mimicking a horse’s natural behavior. Going to three or five feedings per day would be an improvement over the standard two feedings. Another simple option would be to leave out additional, lower quality hay (high in fiber and low in non-structural carbohydrates) for your horse to browse on during the day, thereby providing them with more “chew time.” A short-coming to this approach is that horses often waste hay when they have a surplus—or they quickly become overweight.
To beat the wasted hay/bored horse conundrum, different kinds of slow feeders can be made or purchased which will break up the monotony during the day and simulate a more natural feeding environment. Automatic feeders with slots for up to six (or more) feedings are an expensive but reliable way to do this. This kind of system gives the horse multiple small feedings over the course of a day and night, which is closer to the lifestyle of their wild relatives on the plains.
Another type of slow feeder is the hay net variety. This is basically a large hay net with small holes. Horses expend more effort to pull hay out from between the net’s holes, thus spending more time eating. Different types of nets with different brand names are on the market, and some are sold specifically as ways to slow a horse’s hay intake. I’ve also seen double bagged hay nets and even old hockey nets made into slow feeders that work well.
Slow feeder hay bags are also available. These are large canvas hay bags with small holes. These probably don’t restrict the horse’s intake as substantially as other options, but they might offer a workable solution for some.
Different types of slow feeder bins are available, or you might be able to create something useful yourself. These are usually large wooden or hard plastic containers with a grate to hold down the hay. Horses have to pick carefully at the hay to get it out, only removing one small mouthful at a time. This means less waste and more time spent eating. NOTE: Be extremely careful if your horse is scraping their teeth on metal or rough edges as this can promote damage to their teeth or the soft tissues in their mouths.
Academic research shows us that smaller, more frequent meals are healthier for our horses since they encourage increased chewing time, smaller particle size, and increased salivation, resulting in fewer overall health issues. If you have concerns about your horses being bored, or if they are experiencing any of the health issues mentioned earlier, you may want to consider using some type of slow feeder.
For more information, check out our tip sheet, Track Paddocks and Slow Feeders: Tips for Combatting Horse Boredom.