Tack n' Talk

Online Equestrian Resource

Hello Weekend: Slow Feeders

Presented by:  Larissa Cox, M.Sc. Equine Science

From the time horses were domesticated and stalled, unknowingly, we created a problem.  The equine digestive system continuously produces and secretes stomach acid.  This isn’t an issue when horses graze most of the day, but when their stomach is empty, that acid can eat away at the stomach lining causing painful gastric ulcers and digestive imbalances.

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In the wild, horses travel up to 25 miles a day eating little bites here and there, grazing 18 – 20 hours each day.  Their digestive system is classified as trickle feeders, eating only enough to be satisfied and never to be full.  It is very important to remember the underlying biology of the horse when determining how and when to feed and in what quantities.

The horse is a hind gut fermenting grazer.  The digestive process starts when he pulls and chews grass which in turn stimulates the flow of saliva, lubricating this grass before passing into the digestive tract.  As the horse chews, their alkaline saliva helps to buffer the acidity in their stomach.  The pH of the stomach is quite acidic and realize that this acid is produced whether or not the horse is eating.  As long as the horse’s stomach contents are buffered by saliva and fiber, the digestive tract remains healthy.  When we as owners try to compensate for the lack of hay by feeding more concentrate, we unintentionally overload their delicate digestive system, leading to excessive fermentation and gas in the hindgut.  This can lead to colic or diarrhea, or in extreme situations, gastric rupture, which can cause death.

Think about when you come home after a hard day’s at work, not eating all day.  You come home famished.  You eat everything in site, completely overeating, eating anything you can get your hands on.  Because your brain hasn’t caught up with your stomach, you are still hungry when you go to bed.  When you throw your horse a flake of hay, he will eat it until it’s gone, then still be hungry.  He will devour his grain and finish his evening hay before you shut the barn door.  If he eats too fast, he won’t feel content and full, which will lead to overeating.  And, because he is not chewing properly, he thinks he is still hungry which will cause him to become nervous, edgy and disobedient.

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The concept of slow feeding is a continuous feeding method that allows your horse to constantly forage, stimulating his digestive system and his mind.  Under this condition, your horse’s body will work in better balance as nature intended.  Slow feeders decrease the rate of consumption, replicating natural grazing.  The digestive process is slowed down and the nutrients in hay can be absorbed much more efficiently.

Horses need to eat frequent meals as the stomach is very small and empties within an hour.  Any slow feeding method would provide constant foraging thereby reducing stress and allowing the horse’s system to remain balanced.  This in turn would reduce episodes of colic and loose stools.

As an added benefit, slow feeding can eliminate many vices such as weaving, cribbing and feed anxiety.  Other benefits can include reduction of colic risk, reduction of boredom, elimination of forage waste, reduction in labour costs, ends multiple feedings.

There are many types of slow feeders from “toys” that drop grain pellets to hay nets, box feeders and automatic hay dispensers.  Each having their advantages and their disadvantages.  In the upcoming issues, some popular slow feeders will be discussed.

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2 Comments»

  Lisa Brown wrote @

Very informative article . Looking forward to follow up about differing methods. My Morgans are on pasture all summer , but they are fed grass/ alfalfa in the colder months. They are very healthy and hardy.

  tackandtalk wrote @

Hi Lisa! I’ll be posting a more detailed blog on differing methods soon.

My horses are on pasture all summer as well and then during the winter months, I use a slow feeder hay net to slow their feeding process down. Works really well.

Your horses look wonderful!

– Larissa


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