Slow feed hay nets have grown in popularity for their ability to encourage more natural eating habits in their horses. They’re proving invaluable in shipping horses, as well.
Horses are natural foragers. In the wild, they can spend more than 14 hours a day eating and have a digestive tract designed accordingly.
"Frequent, small meals are best for the digestive-tract anatomy," explained Clair Thunes, Ph.D,. of Summit Equine Nutrition, in an interview with Horse & Rider.
"Horses evolved to eat nearly constantly, and, as a result, they're continually secreting hydrochloric acid into their stomachs. Saliva from chewing contains bicarbonate that buffers the acid. So a near-constant food source that requires a lot of chewing increases saliva, which helps reduce the risk of gastric ulcers."
The smaller openings of slow feed hay nets provide constant but restricted access to hay, thereby more closely mimicking how horses eat in the wild. It's a concept that's supported by research.
A University of Minnesota study examined the effectiveness of slow feed hay nets by feeding eight adult horses in individual box stalls. Horses were fed hay off the stall floor, or from one of three hay nets: a large net with six-inch openings, a medium net with 1.75 inch openings or a small net with 1 inch openings.
The researchers found that small or medium slow feed nets were effective in decreasing the rate and amount of hay a horse consumed, and increasing the total time it took for a horse to finish its hay.
In addition to being good for a horse’s digestion, slow feed hay nets have the added benefit of relieving a horse’s boredom, which can be equally useful on a long trailer trip.
There are, of course, a few potential downsides that come along with slow feed hay nets. They are more time consuming to fill than throwing a few flakes of hay in a manger. There is always the potential for injury if hung within range of errant hooves. Finally, it takes most horses time to figure out how to use the nets, and some find the process frustrating, so let your horse get comfortable with it before utilizing the slow feed net on a long trailer trip.
If introduced and used properly, slow feed hay nets can be a very positive addition to your trailering routine.