Slow feeding requires the horse to eat smaller amounts over a longer period of time. This concept simulates natural free-choice foraging.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are meals consumed by humans but are not natural for a horse. Equines are grazing herbivores with a digestive system designed for constant uptake. If your equine does not have forage available 24/7, consider implementing a slow-feeding program. Mentally and physically, horses require free-choice forage.
This can be accomplished by using a grazing muzzle when on pasture or a bale net coupled with slow feed hay net bags for ground feeding or hanging nets where feasible. Extending or adding meals will not produce the mental and physical health benefits of free-choice forage.
Are You Slow-Feed Savvy?
1. Decreased secretion of cortisol: The stress associated with meals causes an increase in cortisol. If cortisol is elevated, insulin rises, which leads to fat storage. This can cause or worsen obesity, which is why some horses seem to be able to “live on air.” Even overweight horses should receive a minimum of 1.5% to 2% of their body weight per day in grass hay that is low in non-structural carbohydrates. If appropriate forage is available at all times, they can typically eat more and maintain or lose weight.
2. Reduced risk of ulcers: The equine stomach produces acid 24 hours a day in preparation for constant uptake and can empty in as little as 15-20 minutes. Chewing activates saliva (an alkaline substance) production, which buffers gastric acid. Under natural conditions with free-choice forage, the horse will produce about five gallons of saliva every day and eventually “recycle” much of the water content via re-absorption prior to excretion.
Fiber present in the stomach also prevents the “splashing” of acids. The lower part of the stomach, in addition to producing the acid, receives protection by also producing mucus. The upper, or non-glandular part, has no protection and thus is more susceptible to damage by the acids. The upper portion has squamous epithelium – not dissimilar, in a way, to our skin. Having fiber in the stomach is especially important during any physical activity/ exercise which causes the splashing of acids. If your horse consumes hay too quickly, the particle size will not be reduced sufficiently or have a high enough saliva-to-forage ratio. Saliva plays a crucial role in digestion. Large amounts of dry matter lacking sufficient saliva can contribute to impaction colic.
3. Increased digestion: Optimal digestion and fermentation require time and movement. Mobility stimulates gut motility. Providing forage free-choice in multiple locations will encourage both. This will promote consistent fermentation, effectively keeping the hindgut both weighted (to discourage twisting) and motile, thereby preventing conditions that can contribute to colic. The cecum in a horse has its entrance and exit at the top. Digested material has to defy gravity to exit - the cecum contracts to push the contents out the top. To accomplish this critical function, forage needs to be flowing through the digestive system at all times.
The primary site for fiber digestion is in the hindgut; which is populated with billions of naturally-occurring, beneficial bacteria and protozoa. However, the hindgut is also home to harmful bacteria. The healthy balance between beneficial and harmful bacteria can easily be disrupted by periods of time without hay or grass intake (fiber). Maintaining a consistent population of beneficial bacteria is essential to ensuring healthy gut function and reducing incidences of hindgut acidosis and laminitis.
4. Minimized or alleviated boredom: Equines allowed to continuously slow feed benefit psychologically. That is, an occupied horse is less likely to develop vices. Horses sleep only 3 to 4 hours in a 24-hour period and usually no longer than 20 minutes at one time; food tends to be their main focus.
5. Natural wear of teeth: Increased chew time wears teeth more naturally when eating at ground level. A natural grazing position allows the mandible (jaw bone) to come down and forward in the atlantoaxial and temporomandibular joints. This enables the mandible to move up and down, side to side, forward and back without any restriction; facilitating optimum mastication and reduction of particle size.
6. Little to no wasted hay: Slow feeders prevent horses from trampling hay and contain it in windy conditions. Horses naturally prefer to eat outside in the open, even in windy conditions, because they are prey animals and depend on sight and sound to detect predators. If either of these defenses is impaired, it can create psychological tension. When eating from ground level in an unobstructed area,their peripheral vision is not impaired and they feel more secure and safe.
7. Weight management: Hay is grass with the water reduced; each mouthful is a more concentrated source of calories. Hay contains seven to eight times more calories than live grass per pound. Grass is 70 to 80% water as opposed to sun cured hay at 5 to 10%. If your horse is overweight, slow feeding will help to regulate insulin spikes, metabolism, and secretion of cortisol. For underweight equines, it can help increase digestion and assimilation of calories and nutrients.
9. Omission of stress in your life: Meals are stressful to your herd, and you! Equine guardians experience an enormous weight lifted off their shoulders when they are not concerned about feeding times.
Always consider nutrition when dealing with any health or mental issue. Feeding a balanced diet (low in non-structural carbohydrates for overweight individuals) including free-choice forage is healthiest for your herd. Equines were not designed to thrive on a high-calorie, nutrient-deficient diet comprised of meals. By providing free-choice forage, you will have a healthier, more content herd.
For information on insulin resistance, overall nutrition, and balancing a diet to your specific forage, visit these websites: Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. at www.gettyequinenutrition.biz or Eleanor M. Kellon, VMD at www.drkellon.com. Dr. Kellon offers classes online to learn how to interpret a hay or pasture analysis and formulate a custom mix balanced to that specific forage.
- Less strain on the skeletal system and soft tissue because a horse is designed to eat with the head down.
- A natural grazing position allows the mandible (jaw bone) to come down and forward in the atlantoaxial and temporomandibular joints. This enables the mandible to move up and down, side to side, forward and back without any restriction; facilitating natural wear of teeth along with optimum mastication and reduction of particle size.
- Enables nasal passages to drain effectively thereby minimizing the inhalation of dust and particles.
- A horse’s emotional state is reflected in body position and posture. If we require a horse to eat with their head elevated, we are encouraging an alert and tense mental state.
- Eliminates the risk of hay and dust falling into your horse's eyes.
- The Standard Ground Hay Pillows® and Mini Hay Pillows® do not impair the horse's peripheral vision. If impaired, this can create tension psychologically. Horses are prey animals and depend on sight and sound to detect predators.
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About the author:
Monique Warren is the owner of Hay Pillow Inc.(www.thehaypillow.com) and has been an equine guardian for forty years. Studying equine nutrition and the equine foot are her passions. She resides in southern California.
Freedom Health, LLC (2011, August). Colic, Colonic Ulcers and the Equine Digestive Tract. Retrieved from
Getty, J. M. Ph.D. Free-Choice Forage Feeding – Beyond the Basics. Retrieved from http://gettyequinenutrition.biz/Library/FreeChoiceForageFeedingBeyondtheBasics.htm
Getty, J. M. Ph.D. Horse Digestion - It's Decidedly Different! Retrieved from http://gettyequinenutrition.biz/TeleSeminars/TeleseminarBooks/Excerptdigestion.htm
Ridgway, K. J. DVM (2011). Equine Ulcers – You Really Need To Know More! Retrieved from http://drkerryridgway.com/2016/07/05/equine-ulcers/