Feeding systems for horses are as varied as one’s imagination. You’ve probably seen a number of feeders ranging in style from standard hay racks attached to the wall that are used in stalls and run-in sheds to large round or square bale feeders to tire feeders or modified stock tanks to mesh and netting contraptions that hold hay. The best choice is the one that works best with your individual farm and your horses’ eating proclivities.
Bale feeders come in different shapes and sizes–round, square, with or without a shade cover over the hay, with different sized spaces between the slats and different sized “trays” to catch falling hay. These range in style from tombstone to cones to curtain configurations.
Hay within a tombstone feeder is covered half way, and rounded, metal projections (like tombstones) extend upward to block the horse from only inserting his head and neck to access the bale. A bale placed in the cone feeder is entirely contained and accessed through bars or slats. A curtain feeder operates as a rotating device that closes and opens its access for specified periods of time. Of the three systems, the tombstone incurred the most hay wastage, according to one study.
Hay racks (free standing or wall attached) have been a common feeding conveyance for decades, but these have fallen out of favor as they tend to incur a lot of waste as hay is pulled out and falls to the ground.
A plastic “hut” feeder (www.duplessishorsefeeder.com or www.hayhut.com ) that weighs a couple of hundred pounds can be placed over large or multiple small bales to provide a stationary and protected place for eating. One advantage is that the hut is readily moveable to different areas of the property to avoid churning and trampling of soil repeatedly in one place.
Another useful feeding system for field or paddock uses webbed polypropylene netting (www.bigbalebuddy.com ) that wraps around a large round bale or several small square bales. These nets confine the hay and provide a safe feeding arrangement without any metal or sharp edges. The webbing also slows intake and because it turns into a small portable item when not holding hay, it is easy to move bales around the property.
Variations on the theme of a “slow” feeder are abundant commercially. Such “slow” feeders (for example, www.thinaircanvas.com/nibblenet; www.grazingbox.com; www.slowfeeder.com) restrict intake through the use of nets, webbing, mesh or grates, forcing the horses to “graze” their food rather than rapidly consuming hay in a short time span. These slow feeders are extremely helpful to maximizing intestinal health and also to protect against obesity from over-consumption and to curtail boredom from rapid consumption that leads to stable vices.
Some horses live or are fed alone and so do fine with a small slow feeder mesh hanging bag or net, or with a tractor tire that is turned inside out to serve as a safe feeder that holds hay in one place. Caution should be taken when using inverted tires with foals as they tend to climb inside and get stuck, or they may chew on the rubber and swallow it.
In all cases, the feeder system you select should be safe with rounded edges and no potential entrapments. It should be sturdy so it can’t be overturned, and easy to clean to minimize mold and debris. The size, number and placement of any feeder system are important considerations to ensure equal opportunity for all members of the herd.