How to Introduce Your Horse to Slow Feeding
Using a hay net can be a great way to reduce waste, improve digestion and save time. However, if the concept of eating through small holes is new for your horse, how you introduce him to nets can make or break the experience. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your net and ensure a smooth transition for your horse.
Understanding your feeding your goals and knowing how much hay your horse needs is the 1st step in the transition process. The goal of slow feeding is to simulate grazing by providing access to forage 24/7. That constant access is what prevents colic, ulcers, and unwanted behavioral issues. As an awesome bonus, using a net will also reduce the amount of hay waste and could possibly extend the life of a bale, especially if half of it is being wasted. If reducing waste, improving digestion, preventing health and behavioral issues align with your goals, then our hay nets are a good fit for your feeding routine.
However, reducing the total amount of hay your horse needs in a day is not what hay nets are designed to do. It’s very important to understand how much hay your horse needs before using a net. The average horse needs 14-25lbs of hay a day. Your horse’s daily forage requirement is based on their weight: 1.5-3% of their body weight depending on age, workload, production, climate etc. For example: 1000lb horse x 1.5% = 15lbs/day minimum.
Forage requirements remain the same regardless of how you feed hay. For example, if you normally feed a couple of flakes in the morning and a couple of flakes in the evening, most likely your horse is not meeting his daily forage requirement. If you suddenly switch your feeding program and give him an entire bale with a net on it, he will most likely eat more than his normal ration of 4 flakes/day. In addition, he may go through a bale faster than you expect because he is eating to meet his minimum nutrient requirements and then some.
The 1st month of slow feeding is the introductory/transitional period. There is a learning curve. It can take up to 30 days for you horse to fully grasp the concept of slow feeding and trust that there will always be hay available (especially if he is used to hay being rationed out a couple times a day). Depending on how your old feeding program was structured, your horse may need time to make mental and metabolic adjustments to slow feeding. Your patience, consistency, and awareness are the key to a smooth transition. For more insight on your horse’s state of mind and how it relates to feeding, check out this article by one of our favorite equine nutritionists Dr. Juliet Getty.
During the 1st month, we recommend using the net as a secondary feeder in conjunction with providing loose hay nearby. This helps to introduce him to the new concept and start the learning phase. There will come a point when he prefers to eat the from the net instead of the loose pile. Once that happens, start reducing the amount of loose hay until you stop using loose hay altogether and he is eating from the net exclusively.
The 2nd piece of the transition phase is self-regulation, where he learns to eat what he needs instead of overeating. This process can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months. If your horse is not used to having hay in front of him 24/7, you can expect self-regulation to take longer. Again, patience and consistency are the key to this process.
Never let your net go empty. Empty nets = frustrated/stressed horses. If your horse is stressed about his food source, he will not learn to self-regulate and can develop bad habits due to prolonged forage deprivation. You want your horse to learn that there will always be hay available to him so that he will not feel the need to devour it each time a fresh bale is put out.
If you think your horse is eating too much too fast, then you need to compare his actual daily consumption to his minimum daily requirement (formula above). If he is staying within the normal range of 1.5-3%, then you know he is not overeating. If after 60-90 days your horse is still consuming more than the normal range, you may need to look at other factors that contribute to over eating such as inflammation, stress, diet and exercise.
No hay net is indestructible. Holes sometimes happen. However, they are most likely to occur during the 1st month or so until your horse gets the hang of eating through a net. Once he understands the concept and realizes the hay supply is not going to run out, he will leave the net alone. We recommend putting eyes on your net daily during the introductory period and repairing holes (if you have any) asap. Repair kits and videos are available here.
It probably seems like there is way more to slow feeding than you ever imagined, but the basic concept is founded on the way horses are naturally designed to eat. Here are the main takeaways in a nutshell:
- The overall goal is to provide hay 24/7. Continuous access to forage prevents colic, ulcers, and bad habits.
- Your horse’s daily hay requirement: your horse’s weight x 1.5-3% = lbs/day your horse needs.
- It can take 30 days for your horse to grasp the slow feeding concept.
- It can take 2-8 weeks for your horse to self-regulate.
- NEVER let your net go empty.
We encourage you to do your own research about equine digestive and metabolic processes to figure out what feeding routine works best for you and your horse. We are always available to help answer any questions you may have or direct you to a knowledgeable source. To see how you can start reducing waste and improving your horse’s health, check out our full line of hay nets.