Last Updated on February 24, 2022 by Allison Price
How to use slow feeders and slow haynets without putting your horse’s legs, feet, or teeth at risk
Slow feeders are best for horses. Horses in the wild can graze for up to 16 hours per day. You want your horse to be able to follow a similar feeding schedule in his home environment. You’re doing a great job! All the best for your horse.
Slow feeders can sometimes cause health and welfare problems. You need to be aware of the potential risks and mitigate them when you select, monitor, or maintain slow-feeding equipment.
We’ve consulted the experts to learn more about slow feeder safety and haynet safety.
Five Safety Risks to Consider
Marie Roig Pons, a PhD student at the Agroscope national scientific center at the Swiss National Stud in Avenches, states that slow feeders reduce food accessibility, which can lead to longer feeding times. She says they improve horse health and welfare, and even reduce aggression between horses and horses, citing research from France’s University of Rennes. These are the key messages that Swiss National Stud sends owners in Switzerland to promote slow feeders.
Roig Pons says that almost all scientific studies have not examined slow feeder safety. Roig-Pons is determined to fill this gap and has begun a huge, ongoing project that evaluates the benefits and disadvantages of different types of feeders. Over 1,300 owners have already shared their experiences. Although it appears that the benefits outweigh the risks, it is still important to be aware of them, she said.
Practically speaking, there is no way to use horses around any of the products we offer. Bob Peters, DVM at McKinlay Equine Hospital in Newman Lake (Washington), says that nothing can be completely risk-free. Every stall in the hospital is equipped with a slow feeder. He says that there can be problems with any of the equipment. He has found that certain feeders are more appropriate and safer than others, particularly in certain situations. These are the risks and how to reduce them. And what to do if they cause problems for your horse.
Risk 1 – Gum and Teeth Damage
Peters said that horses were often hooked on haynet cords or metal grates to wear their teeth when they first began using slow feeders. He says that he saw “a lot of damage” and was referring to the obvious wearing of enamel, especially on the upper incisors. “When I notice this wear pattern, I first ask if they are eating from a slow feeder metal grate.
Minor enamel wear can be repaired over many years, as horse teeth fall from the gum throughout their lives. If the damage has reached the pulp horn and the owner and veterinarian do not take action within an hour, the tooth will eventually die. Most owners don’t know what’s wrong. Peters states that most owners are unaware of the problem until six to eight months after I perform a routine exam. By then, the entire tooth, including the root, has rotted and must be extracted.
He also said that slow feeder haynet cables can cause problems if they are tangled with decaying, isolated or loose teeth. This is especially true for older horses and horses with age-related or lost baby teeth. Peters says that sometimes these cords “just help nature along,” by removing a tooth the horse was about lose anyway. He’s seen foals also get deep lacerations to their gums in the upper arcade, which can cause permanent damage to the permanent teeth below.
Peters suggests that horses aged 5 to 20 (when their incisors are in) only use cord-based haynets. He also recommends that you get a checkup before using them. He says that nets with 1- to 2-inch openings made of 1-inch-wide nylon straps are the most effective and least damaging for the teeth.
He also mentions that horse teeth can be fed plastic tub-form feeders with holes. These feeders are used by his clinic as well as nylon strap nets to protect their patients in the hospital. He says that metal grates should be avoided.
Owners who have dealt with these issues before can easily switch feeder styles. Peters states, “When they see how much damage they have done, they don’t argue.”
2: Foot or Trapped Shoes
Our sources tell us that slow feeders tend to take into account the size of the hoof. There is very little chance that a horse will get his foot stuck in a hole. Peters advises that owners be careful with the other parts of their feeders, such as not letting the tie cord from a haynet drag on the ground, where it could wrap around a part of the body. If you hang your feeders too low, it could cause a horse to trap his leg or even his head.
He says that shoes are the most common problem. He says, “I have had clients whose horses pawed at the net and caught a shoe and it tore the shoe off.” While it doesn’t often cause serious injuries, it is something that you need to be aware of.
Roig-Pons says that horseshoes or haynets do not go together, but only if they are secured high. For shod horses, plastic systems with holes are better than cylinders, tubs, or wall feeders.
3: Frustration, Anxiety
Slow feeders pose a risk that is often overlooked, according to Martine Hausberger (Doctor of Philosophy), director of the Laboratory of Animal and Human Ethology, which studies animal behavior. It is a part of the French National Research Center and the University of Rennes.
She says slow feeders should decrease horses’ intake but not so much that it is detrimental to their mental health. Frustration can lead to negative emotions and pose a threat to the horses’ welfare. Hausberger says that horses should spend more time enjoying their food and less time fighting for it.
Her team compared two slow feeders, a hanging haybag and a plastic feeder. They observed horses pulling at the bag and biting. Stereotypies like cribbing were also displayed by horses from time to time. However, the feeder, a triangular plastic trough with a descending plate and holes, showed no signs of frustration. Horses were calm and relaxed, and were more friendly to people than those who were fed with a hay bag.
Peters adds that sometimes horses may give up on their diets and quit eating altogether because they are frustrated. Hausberger says that frustration is often caused by too small openings, particularly for the length of hay cut. The horse won’t be able to grab the ends if they aren’t visible. She says that horses prefer to pull first, then chew, rather than having to take small chopping bites. Swinging bags and nets that hang from the ceiling can cause horses frustration as they cannot use enough leverage to grab hay. These should be hung against a wall or fence by the owners.
Roig Pons is concerned that horses might be anxious about the feeder shape, even though she hasn’t seen it. She is particularly concerned about tub-type feeders’ deep designs. She says that these feeders are not compatible with horses’ psyches from an ethological perspective, as they are a species that is always paying attention to what’s going on around them. “So, dipping their heads in a place they can’t see could possibly cause anxiety.”
Peters says that training can reduce frustration. Peters says horses should be trained with a new feeder and kept under control. They should start with half of their ration in the new feeder and half as they were eating (on the ground). He says that they will finish the first half of the ration and then play with the rest, without becoming hungry.
To ensure good welfare, learning should be fast. Roig Pons states, “If they can’t get thehay out of the holes then what can you expect them learn?” Horses need to eat almost every day. They will never be able to eat as much as they want because their feeding system is not allowing them to satiate their hunger. It’s not enough if the (feeder isn’t providing continuous flow).
A Guide to Slow Feeder Types
The concept of a haynet began as a simple idea, but has evolved to include many slow feeder options. Benefiting from experience and a few scientific studies, manufacturers–and some resourceful do-it-yourselfers–have developed new designs that give horse owners multiple slow feeding options. (In fact, some welfare scientists no longer consider slow feeders nets as such, mainly because of the potential safety hazards they pose when compared to other modern technologies.
Slow feeders, which include nets, are either suspended from or attached to a wall, or covered a tub or box placed on the ground. Our sources tell us that some nets and bags can be used on their own, but owners need to check with the manufacturers to ensure it is safe. We have categorized feeders based on style and material:
- Nets Traditional haynets are made from knotted cotton or synthetic strings in a design which expands when filled with hay. The latest designs use thick nylon webbing rather than cords. The average netting mesh size is between 1 and 2 inches. They are closed with a drawstring.
- bags A variation of haynets. Haybags are made from canvas or another heavy-duty fabric but have openings that are covered with netting, nylon straps or a similar mesh size to the haynets. Some webbed designs have a two-sided design, but no fabric backing. The closure of slow-feeder bags can be done with zippers, snaps, or Velcro.
- Grates Heavy metal grates Because grates are heavier than hay, their use as a cover is practical. Gravity naturally falls with the weight of grates. The distance between iron and steel bars is usually around 3 to 4 inches. Some designs allow for the metal to be painted or coated with a synthetic substance.
- Polyurethane containing holes Plastic designs in color have become popular as safe and practical solutions. These round openings measure between 2 and 4 inches in diameter. This material can also be used to make rolling balls.
Risk 4 – Orthopedic Issues
Slow feeders do not encourage horses to eat with the heads down at pasture. Hausberger claims this poses significant problems for horses’ physical and mental health. She explains that anything that places the horse’s neck in an unnatural position could have serious consequences for their vertebral column. This could cause serious neck and back problems if they spend a lot of time eating in an unnatural head or neck position.
Roig Pons also had concerns when Roig-Pons filmed some Swiss National Stud stallions “twisting, spiraling all over the place” as part of their slow feeder safety investigation. This was especially true when horses were fed from trough-like feeders that were covered with a grate.
Their equine orthopedic specialists were less concerned. Roig Pons states that the horse’s inability to remain in one place long enough to cause injury was what they were concerned about. She adds that they watched only 15-minute videos which may not have provided enough information.
She also points out that horses move a lot while grazing and sometimes eat from trees and bushes. She says that more research is required to understand how a head-down position with no movement, which can be from both a feeder and a pile on the ground, could affect musculoskeletal wellness.
Hausberger says that 77% of domestic horses suffer from problems with the vertebral column. Studies show that horses spend 60% of their time eating in natural conditions with their heads down. It is important to think about the risk of feeding position.
Risk 5 – Injuries from Inappropriate or Damaged Material
Roig Pons says that most slow feeder professionals have gained experience from making products for horses. It is important to consider the quality of basic materials, especially when you are trying to reduce costs or build feeders at your home. She says that she saw some owners using a net for eight euros ($10) from a discount shop to cover cargo in an open trailer. This was to save 150 euros ($180) on a commercial product. These people later complained about their horses’ gums and teeth. So materials do matter. We don’t yet know all the ways that they work, or which ones are most effective.
Materials can also break down over time, no matter how good they are, and materials, regardless of their quality, may be kicked or stepped upon. Roig Pons says that some plastics break faster than others and can leave sharp edges and points that could injure horses.
Peters says that nets and straps can become loose or broken over time. Some parts may even get into the digestive tract. He says, “I have removed things (surgery) from horses and wondered how he swallowed that.” Frayed bits are not a problem. But a 4-inch square piece of netting? This could pose a problem.
Safety is paramount, so owners should inspect feeders as they would any other horse equipment. He says, “You cannot just keep using them till they’re frayed or falling apart.” “So, maintenance!”
Slow feeders can help horses live longer and better lives by slowing down their eating. Some materials are not safe and certain designs may not work for all horses. You can ensure that your horses enjoy slow feeders as much as possible by watching their behavior, dental health, keeping dangling pieces out of reach of shoes and changing their positions while eating.