Slow Feeders For Horses

This article isn’t directly about hoof care but about horse care and a new technique in feeding hay that I have found to be very useful. For the last two and a half years I have had our personal horses and all horses that have come in for training on slow feeders.

First, let me cover why this system is so beneficial. Despite popular belief, horses are not grazing animals, they are by nature foragers. In the wild they travel up to 25 miles a day eating little bites here and there for approximately 20 hours per day.

Their digestive track classifies them as trickle feeders by the scientific community. Their lack of a gall bladder and storage ability for digestive enzymes means the horse produces and removes these digestive enzymes as it needs to. When we feed our horses infrequent large meals the horse needs to increase the production of these enzymes. Then when the food is gone the horse will dispose of these enzymes. This is where the hoof is affected. This sudden influx of these digestive enzymes to the horse’s blood stream can cause an excessive increase of MMPs (matrix metalloproteinase) in the hoof.

These MMPs have the job of altering the laminae so that the hoof can properly stay attached to the coffin bone yet allowing the hoof to move downward during growth. A truly remarkable process when you study it, and is an important part of the horses well being.

However, when excess MMPs are produced because of the excess toxins created by removal of the enzymes in the hind gut, laminae are excessively altered, and the stability of the hoof wall connection to the coffin bone is compromised and can start the process of founder. This process can also take effect when too much sugar is in the horse’s diet, but for now we are just concerned with the sudden influx and excretion of the excessive toxins created by large infrequent meals. 

If your horse is already foundered, this increase in MMPs can weaken the laminae further and make rehab much harder if not impossible. This slow feeding system does not allow the horse to just quickly eat his hay and then stand around with nothing to eat for hours at a time in some cases. It allows a slow and steady influx of food and therefore, a slow and steady influx of enzymes.

This feeding system is felt by some to reduce the incidence of ulcers and relieve some of the discomfort of those who already have ulcers. We must remember that stomach acid is produced constantly whether there is food in there or not.

With this slow feeding system I also feel that I do not have to be concerned about when I work my horse on a full or empty stomach. He is at all times ready to go. After all he does not have this big meal of hay and or grain just sitting in the gut trying to digest, nor is he running on empty. 

I have seen thin horses put on weight and heavy horses drop weight. I have also seen food aggressiveness greatly reduced and feel this system keeps a horse’s mind occupied as it looks for the next little nibble.

Depending on your hay’s consistency your regular two hour ration can last a horse up to 6-7 hours. Through domestication we have come to feeding large infrequent meals that many in the horse community believe to be the cause of some colic issues. After all, feeding 10 lbs. or more of hay and a couple pounds of grain that is eaten in a two hour time period very well may cause problems in a digestive track.

With a stomach the size of a football, a total length of approximately 100 feet long, only four inches in diameter and a tremendous amount of bends and turns in a small area of the horse, common sense tells me this amount of food digested in a short time could very well clog up the digestive tract and may contribute to the reason colic is the number one killer of domesticated horses.

Not only do I feel this concept in feeding is good for the horse, we have found that on our horses, who are on free choice hay, we are using one-third less hay with very little waste.

I also feel stalled horses with vices such as weaving, wood chewing, and cribbing will have a reduction in these behaviors since the slow feeders keep them busy looking for that next little bite and not standing around bored waiting for their next meal.

Slow feeders come in many different forms as can be seen when researched on the Internet. I have personally tried several different types but am currently using and plan on staying with the slow feeder net bags designed and sold by Beech Tree Stables of Trappe, MD.

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