Patty’s Haflinger Cinco grazing in the breezeway.

Natural Free-Choice Hay Feeding

My friend Patty Symonds introduced me to hay feeders which she saw on Ove Lind’s Swedish Hoof School website

(Note: Ove has moved the feeder box designs to this new Slow Feeding site). Patty made one for use inside her barn’s breezeway, and I made mine for the pasture.

Fran Scott’s feeder box is portable and can be moved when raining.

Fran Scott’s Equine Slow Grazer Box
Fran’s box is top down instead of having grids on the sides. Here she offers an excellent step-by-step instructional video on how her slow grazer box was constructed. Fran’s box holds 3/4 of a bale of hay, but as explained in the video the size of the box depends upon the size of the grid – if you find a larger grid, you can make a larger box. Fran’s box is portable and can be moved during heavy rain, but there is a grid at the base which allows water to pass through. I’ve seen similar boxes made with a cover high above the horse’s heads, i.e., a tarp or a wooden roof.

 Eve Alexander’s Slow Feeder Hay Box

My feeder is 4 x 4 x 4 and stays in the pasture.

My feeder is 4 x 4 x 4 and stays in the pasture.

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There are so many benefits to free feeding hay in this way:

  • Horses eat when they are hungry and as much as they need, but because they only get small mouthfuls at a time, they don’t overeat so much that they would founder.
  • Horses don’t fight over food anymore.
  • Horses eat less hay, saving money.
  • Horses’ digestion is healthier because they are essentially grazing all day long.
  • Horses don’t stand at the gate begging.
  • Owners don’t have to carry hay to the pasture several times a day, or early in the morning.
  • No more hay spoiled by rain or trampled into the mud.

According to Merial, manufacturer of GastroGard® ulcer paste,

“Gastric ulceration is a widespread clinical finding among performance horses in training as well as in foals. Prevalence of up to 93% has been documented among horses in race training and in nearly 60% of other performance horses.”

Why do horses get ulcers? They get ulcers because their stomachs are built to process food most of the waking day. In the wild, horses forage all day long. But domesticated horses usually live in stalls where they are fed twice a day. If you’re lucky your barn owner might feed lunch, but most horses are fed a couple of flakes of hay at 7AM and again at 4PM. But their stomachs continue to create acids for digestion of food. Without anything in their empty stomachs, the acids eat at the horses’ stomach lining. It only takes about 1.5 hours for the food to pass through the small intestine so the food your horse ate at 7AM is gone by 9AM.

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This poor boarded horse suffered from a number of digestive ailments and died shortly after this picture was taken.

I feel terrible guilt for the years I kept my horses in boarding, never even thinking about their nutritional needs. It was taken care of for me! What did I know? No wonder the horses were uncooperative when I wanted to ride. They were hungry! How sad for domestic horses trapped in stalls, bored to death, hungry, and restless.

Now I know that horses need to be kept in as natural a state as possible and have dedicated my horsekeeping to that goal. Horses need to be outside where they can move freely.

We can replicate the experience of natural foraging with a hay feeder, like the one I built. The horses have to work a little bit to pull the hay through the grid, so they can’t eat too much. Stalled horses, or horses on seasonal lush green pastures, can become fat, get founder or colic.

Besides improving the horse’s stomach health, the horses are happier with free-choice hay feeders. They eat what they need when they need it as opposed to wolfing down their two flakes in half an hour and being hungry the rest of the day. They stay busy and out of mischief instead of pacing and pawing in their stalls, or tearing down fences. And it’s easier for you too! As Joe Camp writes in “The Soul of a Horse”:

 “I believe if a person loves his horse, he’ll figure out a way to do what’s best for him.”

Even if your horses are boarded in stalls, you can make a free-choice stall feeder too. You will sleep a lot better at night knowing your horse is healthy and happy. She won’t be bored in her stall as long as she can tug straws of hay from her feeder. Her stomach won’t burn and she’ll be in a good mood when you come to visit her.

My feeder is everything Ove promised it would be! Here’s what Ove says:

“Everybody knows that what the horses eat is important but we didn’t have a clue that it was so extremely important also how they eat.

Today I seriously wonder if it isn’t more important how they eat than what they eat. Our experiences from feeding horses this way are nothing short of extraordinary.

Fat horses lose weight, thin horses gain weight, nervous horses become calm, fighting horses get friendly while feeding from the same bin. And best of all, I get to wake up late on Saturday morning without a bad conscience. No more lunch feeding problems, no more late night and early morning feeding routines.

The variants are plenty but the principles are always the same. Just a few straws at the time, never a full mouth and chew rigorously.”

Here’s a short video about my hay feeder.

 

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You can print out the presentation here [Printable PDF version].

What would I do different to make my feeder even better?

The welded fencing wire we used for the grid gave out after about 7 months. I went to a local salvage yard and found a retail store CD display rack in much thicker gauge wire. I purchased it for $3. My neighbor Mike cut it with bolt cutters and replaced the original wire.

Where we used to have to tamp down the hay, this new grill has bigger holes and we found fluffing the hay made it easier for the horses to pull.

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My dad was the one who recommended the use of siding but we’ve since had to replace the lid with heavy-duty treated plywood which we stained.

From Cataloochee to Myakkahatchee

In March 2010 we left the mountains of North Carolina and moved to North Port, Florida by the Myakkahatchee River. Good ol’ Mike unscrewed all the panels of the feeder box and my husband hauled it down in the moving van. With help from our thirteen year old nephew George, Jason rebuilt the feeder. It doesn’t look so pretty after two harsh winters in the snow and a very wet summer, and after being disassembled and reassembled, but the horses love it. And even though they can pull hay from the hay net faster, they prefer the feeder. Even if you put hay on the ground, they still prefer the feeder!

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Please send me your feeder specs and pictures and tell me about your experience with a feeder box. I will post it here on my site. eve@tricknclick.com Thank you!