How you choose to provide your horse’s feed and hay is just as important as the grains and grasses you provide for his nutritional content. You can provide the best nutritional products in the world for your horse, but they’ll do little good if they’re dumped on the ground, strewn across the stall floor, or inhaled rather than eaten.

Plus, it’s an expensive waste of money that most would rather spend on more important things, like entry fees!

The overall cost of caring for a horse is skyrocketing and it shows no signs of getting cheaper, especially if climatologists are correct in their assessment of future weather patterns. Land for pasture is disappearing and has become more expensive. With more farmland in ethanol production, fewer feed grains are harvested and fewer acres are available for hay production, making both grain and hay more expensive each year.

You will get the most bang for your buck by choosing equipment to help optimize your horse’s nutritional intake, eliminate waste and improve his general well-being. Though not always convenient, many of these beneficial, practical feeding solutions are simple and affordable.

Heads down
Hanging feed buckets are for our benefit, but that’s not necessarily true for our horses. In fact, it’s not natural. Only in horse heaven would they find sustenance chest high.

As with many things in the horse world, how we provide our horse’s feed and hay is becoming increasingly “natural.” In nature, a horse will eat all day and find the majority of its forage on the ground.

The horse’s digestive system was designed to function best when foodstuff is plucked from the ground, says veterinarian Matt Randall of Collier Equine in Waller, Texas. As such, ground feeders— or those buckets designed to safely feed horses with their heads down—mimic the natural feeding posture, which is actually beneficial to the horse’s overall health.

Horses are more relaxed when eating in this natural position. They are less likely to fling their feed in agitation, and will likely eat slower, grazing their grain, in a matter of speaking, rather than bolting their feed, increasing the risk for choke and poor digestion. Perhaps more important, with their heads lowered, saliva production increases, which aids in digestion.

“Saliva moistens the food bolus for the passage from the mouth and esophagus to the stomach and starts the digestive process via enzymes,” says Randall, noting that a healthy horse will produce up to three gallons of saliva a day. “It also contains sodium bicarbonate that helps buffer stomach acid and is the first defense against stomach ulcers.”

Eating with their heads lowered also allows for the proper drainage of nasal cavities and reduces inhalation of dust and other food particles that may irritate the respiratory system.

“If you know your horse has respiratory issues, if you know your barrel horse is a bleeder, you really want to be feeding those horses on the ground,” notes Randall.

Feeding at ground level also has a positive effect on a horse’s teeth. Thanks to evolution, horses get the best use of their teeth with their heads in a lowered position. It improves occlusal contact, says Randall, meaning the teeth on the upper and lower jaw have better contact with each other for better chewing.

“The lower jaw will slide slightly forward for better occlusal contact,” he explains. “Not only does it help the horse process its food more efficiently, it helps the teeth wear evenly. It can help prevent some of the dental abnormalities that we see, like hooks and ramps. Some horses are going to get those no matter what, but generally, eating in a natural position will allow a horse to have a more natural wear on their teeth and slow down the occurrence of some of those abnormalities.”

Ground feeders
Due to the movement to a more natural feed­ing environment, many of the pre-fabricated barns are offering lower feed doors, whereas years ago, all of them had feeding windows at a person’s shoulder height.

There are several commercial ground feeders available to complement any stabling environment, from compartmentalized, cor­ner feeders to the simple, two-gallon rubber feeding pans.

Most people are going to choose the cheapest, easiest option, says Brandi Krause, who manages the Tractor Supply Company in La Grange, Texas. However, rather than standard buckets, Krause sells a lot of large rubber feeding tubs.

“I get a lot of first-time horse owners, and they generally come in wanting a corner feeder or bunk-type feeder until they look at the price,” says Krause. “I recommend the 40- to 45-gallon rubber feed tubs. When they come back to buy more feed, they’re generally happy with how simple they work. I explain to them it’s more natural for a horse to eat off the ground and why that’s better for them. I tell them they can snap them to a fence or a barn wall if they’re worried about the horses moving them, but as I’ve expe­rienced, the horses don’t really move them much, even when I feed out in a dry lot.”

Photo by Danika Kent

With her personal horses—one of which is a geriatric lifelong cribber with nubs for upper incisors—Krause keeps a small trace mineral and salt block in the tub, feeds her hay first and then puts the grain on top of the hay.

“I look back at all the money I spent on buckets and wonder why I didn’t feed like this sooner,” she says. “I’m not replacing broken buckets. They can’t rub and catch their manes and tails on the bucket handles. If they dribble grain, it’s generally over the big tub, so they’re not picking it up off the ground. I can soak and feed hay at the same time if I want to. The only use I have for an actual bucket is watering my horse at the roping.”

If there is a high risk of ingesting sand, rubber mats can also keep the horse from eating any spilled grain off the ground, adds Randall. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have grass pasture, moving the feeders to areas where the grass is better will help mini­mize accidental sand consumption.

“It’s usually not something you think about until the grass is gone or you have a moat of standing water around the feeder or hay ring,” notes Randall, “but if you can remember to move them before it gets to that point, you can save the damage to your pasture and reduce sand consumption. We’re lucky enough to be able to feed our hay on the ground because we have a lot of grass right now, but I have to remind my wife not to feed it in the same spot so we don’t have bare spots and concentrated manure piles around those areas, which increases parasite exposure. Better management of the ground is better management for the horse, too.”

Slow feeders
As grazers, horses are designed to continually secrete digestive enzymes, and forage, not grain, should be the staple of their diet.

“Unlike humans that release acids and enzymes when food is present, horses are on a steady drip of digestive aids,” Randall explains. “They don’t have an on-off switch of appetite. They’ve evolved eating mediocre grasses all the time and running like heck a few times a day. We’ve totally taken them out of that environment.”

Slow feeders mimic the grazing environ­ment by keeping the food supply on par with the horse’s digestive system.

While there are countless commercial products available, like Nibble Nets, PRE­VENT feeding tubs and Porta-Grazers, the internet is chalked full of do-it-yourself slow feeder options—from plywood boxes to con­verted trash cans and plastic barrels.

Most of the boxes consist of a frame that holds a piece of grid wall, or hog or goat panel—wire panels with holes too small for a hoof to go through, but large enough for a horse to nip hay—that lowers to the ground as the horses consume the hay. Some have lips to hold the panel in place, but others simply allow the weight of the panel to keep it within the box.

The rather ingenious trash can or barrel slow feeders have a gridded opening cut in the bottom—to force the horse to reach down for the hay—that are protected by small panels or netting. Each holds a full bale of hay, providing a continuous source of roughage at all times.

If you want to try a few of the DIY models, there are a few things to take into consideration.

“You want to pick a design that will mini­mize the inhalation of dust,” says Randall. “Take the slow feeders made from barrels, even the prefabricated ones. If a horse has to stick his head too far in to reach the hay, you’re going to increase your horse’s risk of inhaling dust and hay particles. The opti­mum design would let those particles fall out the bottom, or have an easily removable bottom for cleaning.”

Another thing to consider is the safety of the material you use to make the grate. Both netting and metal grating can be hazardous if not done properly.

“If you’re planning on having either the netting or paneling low to the ground, you want to make sure it’s small enough that a hoof can’t get through it,” says Randall. “Even if you feel it’s just ‘small enough,’ you might want to go with even a smaller opening because horses can, and will, do the impossible. You also want to make sure there are no sharp edges that may catch a horse’s muzzle. You don’t want to have to have a lip stitched together before the big barrel race.”

Other possible problems with netting include the danger of catching a shoe—­particularly if your farrier has left the appro­priate amount of shoe for adequate heel support.

“Even with the slow feeder nets on round bales, horses are going to find a way to get themselves tangled in them,” says Randall. “It’s best to have a hay ring around them, as well, to prevent any accidents with the net­ting. You can never forget, they are horses and are looking for a place to self-destruct.”

You also want to check the quality of the netting you use, he adds.

“You want durable netting,” Randall says, “not something they can chew through or break easily. Ingesting the webbing can be as dangerous as accidentally ingested baling twine. Sometimes, it will pass right through, but other times, you won’t be so lucky and can end up with an impaction colic. On that note, I highly advise against using baling twine anywhere near where your horses eat, so avoid the quick feeder fixes with twine if at all possible.”

This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Barrel Horse News.


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