Consider free-roaming horses living in the wild who spend the majority of their waking hours searching for food. History and research show that these horses are seldom sick or have problems with their feet.
In the wild, horses travel up to 25 miles a day, eating little bites, grazing 18 to 20 hours each day. Their digestive tracts classify them as trickle feeders, eating only enough to be satisfied and never to be full.
From the time humans first began to confine horses and restrict free access to forage, they created a problem. It wasn’t until the last few decades that horsemen really understood just how troublesome this issue is for the horse. The concept of slow feeding is now becoming more popular.
The equine digestive system continuously produces and secretes stomach acid. This is not a problem when horses graze most of the day. However, when the stomach is empty, that acid can eat away at the lining, causing painful gastric ulcers and digestive upset which can lead to colic.
Feeding hay free choice can duplicate natural grazing to some extent, and it definitely has a favorable impact on behavior. Horses who are allowed to eat as much hay as they want are generally more relaxed and content. However, horses have small stomachs for their body size, and overfilling the stomach is a recipe for disaster. Providing frequent small meals is a much safer plan than allowing a horse to gorge on unlimited feed.
It is important to remember the underlying biology of the animal when determining what to feed, how often, and in what quantities.
The horse is a hind gut fermenting grazer. The digestive process begins as his teeth pull, tear and chew forage, stimulating the flow of saliva which lubricates feed prior to its passage to the remainder of the digestive tract. As horses chew, their slightly alkaline saliva helps to buffer the acidity in their stomach. The pH of the stomach is quite acidic and a horse will produce digestive acids whether or not he is eating.
The unprotected upper portion of the stomach is not as well shielded. As long as the stomach contents are buffered by saliva and fiber, the horse’s digestive tract remains healthy.
When horse owners try to compensate for lack of forage by feeding more concentrate, they can unintentionally overload the horse’s digestive system, leading to excessive fermentation and gas in the hindgut. This can cause colic or diarrhea, or even gastric rupture, which can be fatal.
THE SLOW FEEDING CONCEPT
Think about when you haven’t eaten all day and come home famished. You completely overeat anything you can get your hands on. Then, because your brain hasn’t caught up with your stomach, you are still hungry when you go to bed.
When you throw your horse two or three flakes of hay he will eat it until it is gone, then be hungry well before you get home to feed him again at night, when he’ll devour his grain and finish his hay before you shut the barn door. If he eats too fast he will not feel content and full when he is supposed to, which leads to overeating. Because he is not chewing properly, he thinks he’s still hungry which in turn can cause him to be nervous, edgy and disobedient.
The concept of slow feeding employs a continuous feeding method that allows your horse to constantly forage, thereby stimulating his digestive system and his mind. Under these conditions the horse's body will work in better balance, as nature has intended. Slow feeders decrease the rate of consumption and therefore more closely replicate natural grazing. The digestive process is slowed down and nutrients in hay can be absorbed much more efficiently.
In addition to reducing horse boredom, allowing the horse to eat more continuously has metabolic and other health benefits . Providing food in a few meals rather than spread out evenly can result in higher insulin responses to feeding. Horses with metabolic conditions, such as Cushing’s disease, insulin resistance, hypothyroidism and laminitis benefit when they can eat small amounts on a continuous basis.
SLOW FEEDING BENEFITS
Horses need to eat frequently for both physical and mental health. A horse’s stomach is small, and empties within an hour. A slow feeder system provides constant foraging, reducing stress and allowing the intestinal bacteria to remain balanced, therefore reducing the likelihood of colic or loose stools.
Continuous slow feeding will, in most cases, eliminate vices such as cribbing, weaving, aggression, and feed anxiety. Other benefits:
• Mimics natural grazing behavior
• Reduces colic risk, improves utilization and absorption
• Reduces boredom
• Eliminates feeding time anxiety
• Virtually no waste with properly designed box feeders
• Reduces time and labor in both feeding chores and clean up
• Ends multiple daily feedings
• Takes advantage of modern agricultural practice of cheaper round and large rectangular baling
TYPES OF SLOW FEEDERS
Each slow feeder offers a unique design that can help your horse eat the way nature intended.
Feeder Toys: Utilizing feeder “toys” within tubs or on clean corners of a mat, owners and barn managers can feed grain rations along with supplements. These toys allows the horse to drop his head, build saliva and work (nose the feeder) to get a hay cube or a handful of hay pellets at a time. Meals that took seconds to inhale can now last 15 minutes to even hours.
Box Feeders: With a Box Feeder the horse is “grazing” through a grid system. The hay is confined inside a box or tub with a metal or plastic grate on top. The small openings allow the horse to "graze" for his hay in a much more natural way. The weight of the grate keeps it pressed against the hay, and the horse uses his lips to grab, pull and tear wisps of hay through the grate. Instead of gulping down big mouthfuls, he has to work for the hay, going from square to square.
Hay Nets and Bags: While traditional hay nets and bags have mesh large enough for a horse to stick his muzzle in and get a big mouthful, slow-feed designs have mesh sizes typically between 1 3/8 and 1 5/8 inches. Such tiny openings necessitate nibble-feeding. The horse coaxes a stalk or two out with his lips, then grasps the stalks with his teeth and pulls them out with a quick, sideways motion that mimics the action of grazing. These nets can be helpful when you want to provide a more natural, healthful way for your horse to eat but you can't run out to feed every hour.
Though all horses eat similar things (grass, hay, grain products), each horse will have specific needs, and should be considered as a unique individual with a customized feeding program.