Slow Feeder Design Comparison

stalled-horseI became motivated to investigate different feeding systems after I noticed how horses kept in any kind of enclosure other than pasture, became fixated on food! Even though they received the right amount of hay and/or feed for their body weight and activity level, they were psychologically “starving”.

Of course, since a horse’s stomach produces acid (for digestion) continually, it makes even more sense why a horse fed even 4 times per day would become distressed about food.

When I had my horses on pasture for 10 years in Alberta, they never showed any anxiety about going out for rides, or impatience to get back home, or any tension at feeding times. So I think the contrast with horses kept in stalls, paddocks, or dirt enclosures was really striking for me and I personally do not enjoy hanging out with a horse who is always thinking about food, or trying desperately to get a mouthful of grass.

On the flip side, if you give a horse in a stall or paddock 24/7 access to unlimited hay, they can overeat and end up with laminitis, colic, founder, etc. The solution to this dilemma is slow feeders!

Slow feeders allow the horse access to hay and the ability to “graze” for most of the day, yet only consume a healthy amount of hay.

From what I’ve seen and my discussions with others who have experimented with various types of slow feeders, here are the key points to keep in mind:

1. On a metal or plastic feeder, the grid holes need to be the right size. 2″ – 3″ square or round seems to be the optimal size hole. Some slow feeders have rows of slats (not a grid) so unless you have a horse that needs a lot of hay, the slat design will allow them to consume too much, as it’s much easier to pull out large strips of hay. However, as with all slow feeders, you need to keep an eye on your horse’s teeth and gums, or this can happen:

steel-grate-damageI keep an eye on my horse’s teeth, but I have had 7 different horses eating from my metal grate slow feeders (2″ x 2″ openings) for over 2 years and all teeth are fine.

2. You must have a trapping method that prevents the horse from grabbing the grid and tossing it out of the feeder. Not every horse will figure this out, but some do.

3. Some people prefer slow feeder nets (hay nets), but you also need to check your horses gums to ensure they aren’t getting damaged by pushing or rubbing against the nylon. Here’s what might happen (but many hay net users have never experienced this) and again, none of the 7 horses in my place have any problems with using hay nets:

hay-net-gums

Many have found 1.5″ holes to be the best size for a hay net slow feeder – especially if your horse is new to hay nets, or you have a larger horse. For smaller ponies, or those very skilled at extracting hay, a 1″ net might be better. Nag Bags and Eco Nets are popular brands for hay nets. I prefer Handy Hay Nets for ease and durability.

If your horse is shod, then your hay net must be in a protective feeder (poly, metal or wood) as horses will paw the net and may get the heels of their shoes caught.

If you’re considering using hay nets, then check out this fabulous page of ideas for how to load, hang, clip and position your hay net.

4. Your slow feeder should be as close to the ground as you can get it. This simulates the natural grazing position that is best for the neck and topline (spine) of the horse and also helps prevent hay dust inhalation.

5. Set up your slow feeders the same way you set up your hay piles – with one extra. This prevents stress and anxiety from the dominant horse(s) moving the others off the feeder. So if you have 4 horses, you might get a 4-horse slow feeder + a 1-horse slow feeder. Or two, 2-horse slow feeders + a 1-horse slow feeder. Think about your herd dynamic before you select the size and number of feeders. For example, if you have a super pushy horse who likes to eat alone, then he might take over the 4-horse feeder for himself, leaving your other 3 to share the 1-horse feeder. So then you would need a different configuration to get it to work for your herd. Also be prepared to do what you think will work and then watch them for a week or so; make adjustments as needed.

6. Make sure your feeder is made of non-toxic materials and untreated wood. Remember that your horse will be inhaling for hours in the feeder and touching it with his lips (mucous membranes are highly absorptive). Of course, also avoid sharp or protruding parts.

Alright, so here’s my overview of sturdy slow feeder options, along with some pros and cons…
 

DRURY HEALTHY HORSE FEEDER

There are three models of the Drury Healthy Horse Feeder available. They have grid systems for your pasture, or your horse’s stall, and a hay net system for a round bale.

What I like about this feeder is that it is low maintenance. What I don’t like about it is that the horse will be twisting his head/neck to the side to grab each mouthful – this is an unnatural position and movement to be doing all day, every day, and perhaps your horse will need ongoing chiropractic adjustments. However, depending on how you position your hanging hay net, your horse may be in a similar position anyway.


 

HOMEMADE SLOW FEEDER – Wood & Plastic Grate

Now if you live somewhere extremely cold, then you may not want to use a metal grate slow feeder as the horses’ lips or tongue may get stuck on the metal! So this resident of the Yukon in Northern Canada came up with the ingenious idea of using plastic puck board.

However, as you can see from the video, this box is too small for 2 horses and likely the dominant horse will be well fed and the other one… not so much.

I like to follow the same rule for slow feeders as with hay piles. I have one extra. That way the dominant horse can move the others around as much as he/she wants and there is always a place for all to eat. This really reduces stress/anxiety around feeding – which is not good for any being!


 

HOMEMADE SLOW FEEDER – Wood & Metal Grate

This is a great video that shows all the details, not only of construction, but of how the horses use the feeders and how it changes their psychology. So that even when your horses are eating the same amount of hay per day, you can see how a feeding system that simulates grazing can transform your horse from ‘psychologically starving’ to satiated. I’m not crazy about his string tie-down system though. I don’t think that will hold up well over time.


 

THE SLOW GRAZER

This Slow Grazer slow feeder has everything I was looking for – really easy to load, no protruding parts, perfect size grid, and a sturdy lid to prevent a horse from lifting the grid out and tossing it away. The underside (that contacts the ground) is pressure treated to prevent the wood from rotting – but the rest of it is not. This is a really good thing as I don’t want my horse ingesting chromium and copper from pressure treated wood. And (at the time of writing) the price is excellent – only $275 for a 4’x4’x28″ feeder. They also sell the plans if you have the skills and desire to build your own. Joe (the owner) told me the feeders can sit out in the rain and are good for 8-10 years. Then you may need to replace the gussets in the corners. I ordered two of the 4’x4′ feeders for the three horses in my pasture. This will not only suffice for right now, but will likely still work if I happen to add another horse or two to my pasture.

Here’s the only possible downside to this kind of slow feeder (IF your horse is tall enough to get a front leg in there): This is what my Belgian mare does to the grates when she gets mad that she can’t just gobble the hay:

bent-hay-grate

However, I have had 8 different horses eating from these slow feeders and she is the only one who stomps on the grates like this!

So, since she joined the herd, I have had to switch to a mix of these slow grazer boxes and a 1.5″ hay net, so my Belgian can eat from the net rather than getting so angry that she kicks the box and stomps up the grate on the slow feeder.
 

THE PORTA-GRAZER

A reader found this slow feeding solution and asked for my opinion. I thought it looked good enough to give it a try, so I bought the XL feeder from Porta-Grazer to test with my herd of five. Here’s a short video showing you how it’s constructed and how it works:

After using it for three weeks, here’s my review of the pros and cons of this feeder. First of all, the lid/locking mechanism is a good one. It is VERY sturdy and nicely heavy. I roped it to a large beam in my barn using a chain and there has been no damage whatsoever.

img_5847

Since I have 4 young, playful horses in my herd, I would not leave this feeder loose (as they show in some of their videos) as I’m pretty sure they would crack it.

Here’s my feedback on it’s function: I have packed it with large, stalky hay (alfalfa) and it worked great. When I packed it with soft strands of hay (orchard grass) it didn’t work so well – they couldn’t get it out and ended up mashing/crushing it into little bits that were then impossible to get out. I also purchased the unit with Draft-size openings (the largest holes available).

I was trying to figure out why this could be – since the orchard grass works best in both my metal grate slow feeders and hay nets. Then I realized that due to the shape (about 2 foot wide barrel) the horse cannot really get their head/mouth sideways. So they can’t use a lot of angles to pull the hay out. They can mostly only eat straight on and tilted a little bit to the side.

If you watch the video above, you’ll see that the the horse is eating a stiff, stalky rye grass and as you watch his mouth action you’ll see what I mean about how they can’t angle too much to the side to get to the hay.

So now I have ended up just using it as another feeding station when I put out the loose alfalfa. My system right now is to use low-sugar orchard grass in my slow feeders and give alfalfa loose.

The Porta-Grazer next to the Slow Grazer box
The Porta-Grazer next to the Slow Grazer box

The other issue I noticed is that once the horse starts to eat down the hay, their head is disappearing into a hole with no visibility whatsoever. This is fine for the dominant horse or two, but others further down the pecking order will only eat from it when the more dominant ones are far away – because they can’t move to get out of the way if they can’t see the boss horse coming!

If you had a horse in a stall, or a couple of very docile horses, it would probably work just fine. I don’t think Bermuda would work well in this feeder either. Basically you would need to stick to hay with a good stalk. Or perhaps if you fluffed the hay really well (so packed in less) that might work too.

On the plus side it is much easier to pack/load than a hay net!
 

THE BEST HAY TO FEED

Well, now that you have your slow feeder in place, you need to make sure you fill it with the right kind of hay to keep your horse healthy and at a good weight!

And remember to check front teeth and gum line every month or two, ongoing, to ensure your horse is not damaging their mouth on your slow feeders.

Jini Patel Thompson is a natural health writer and Freedomite. She began riding at age 2 in Kenya, and got her first horse at age 8 in Alberta, and so continues a life-long journey and love affair with these amazing creatures.
Slow Feeder Design Comparison

22 thoughts on “Slow Feeder Design Comparison

  • February 26, 2015 at 5:32 pm
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    Do the slow grazers have metal grates? We had those, and I
    was never comfortable in sub freezing weather.

    Reply
    • February 26, 2015 at 8:22 pm
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      The grates that I bought from slowgrazer.com are metal with plastic coating. However, over time, the horse’s teeth scrape off some of the coating and the metal is exposed. I saw some videos of people who tried metal grates in sub-zero weather and you’re right – they’re not the best option. Having grown up in Alberta and licked my share of metal posts, I wouldn’t use them either! You can use plastic grates/grids instead, like the woman used in the video above from the Yukon:

      http://www.professionalplastics.com/PuckBoardsHockeyHDPEfacing_KickPlateCapRail

      Reply
  • July 20, 2015 at 6:03 am
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    I received a really good question on Facebook, so here it is, along with my reply:

    QUESTION: Great article, Jini. I wouldn’t have thought of the plastic netting irritating the gums but now i can see how that could get really uncomfortable! Also, i’ve never liked feeders where the horse has to pull the hay from the side. Gives me a sore neck just thinking about it! I have a question… I’m plan to feed my old timer (30 YO) with the youngsters (1 & 2) once winter arrives. Will the old guy get enough on a slow feeder? Also horses needing to gain weight? I’ve put some thin rescues on round bales and they gained almost overnight. Have you ever had thin horses on slow feeders, and if so, how did they do? TY!

    ANSWER: What I’m doing with Montaro now as he has some growing and filling out to do is giving him some loose flakes thrown on the ground and then 24/7 access to the slow feeder. With our pregnant mare, we separated her from the herd once or twice a day and gave her pure alfalfa in loose flakes on the ground, then let her back in when she was finished. So you can give a richer hay loose on the ground for the thin horses (on their own) and then your low sugar hay in the slow feeder for all of them. For your old guys, or horses with teeth issues, they just spend more time at the feeders. You can also use a softer orchard grass mix for them which is easier and faster to chew – but as long as it’s low sugar it will be good for your other horses too. More info on hay sources and testing here:
    http://www.listentoyourhorse.com/how-to-choose-the-best-hay-for-your-horse/

    Reply
  • July 20, 2015 at 6:51 am
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    Oh and the Facebook discussion continues – this is also a good point, so again, I’m posting it here too!

    COMMENT: It has also been my experience that thin horses gain and overweight horses tend to lose, kind of a self regulating process? Of course I have always had an age/condition specific “mash” for each horse in conjunction with the slow feeder. Is that what you would recommend Jini?

    ANSWER: Yes, absolutely! And the horses that gain, gain muscle, not fat – again, as long as the hay is low sugar. Re. the ‘mash’, you’re probably going to hate me for this (I know I groaned a few times learning this) but the supplement feed depends on what’s in your hay! Here’s the whole shebang:
    http://www.listentoyourhorse.com/jinis-equine-supplement-regimen/

    Reply
  • Pingback: HEAVY DUTY SLOW FEED HAY NET-*BLUE* for 4ft x 5ft DIA. ROUND BALE |

    • March 6, 2016 at 10:18 am
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      Hi Michelle, I took a look through your site and it’s a great design and excellent construction! I would also add a video to your homepage showing someone filling the feeder, securing the lid, then securing the unit in a stall and out in the pasture. When people buy online, they need a real clear picture of how it will work for them. Your Q&A are great, but a video will answer the remaining doubts that may be stopping people from buying. I understand your production costs must be high – so when asking people to invest this large sum of money, you really have to give them a clear vision of HOW the product will work in their particular environment.

      Also, the size you have (24 lbs hay) will work for a stabled horse for sure, but for others, like mine, I would want the unit to hold at least 50-60 lbs of hay. Perhaps that’s in the works for the future? Oh yes, one more thing, it’s also not clear from your current homepage/video that the bars are rubber and that they MOVE when the horse presses on them – helping to avoid the tooth enamel/gum problems – you have to go to the Q&A page to learn that. So I would also make that clear – you could even just add some explanatory text right on the video there. Good luck, I hope your product catches on – it will especially help those poor stabled horses pass the time. Oh, which gives me another idea – have you tested your units with cribbing or weaving behaviours? Perhaps it would reduce these behaviours significantly…

      Reply
      • March 9, 2016 at 5:13 am
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        Hi Jini – thanks so much for our reply.
        Your suggestion of a video is a great idea – we have a video on youtube here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eU56NWuknss so we will work to get that up on the website.
        We have tested the units and have had feedback from clients about behavioural changes – more relaxed and some horses have stopped box-walking with Harmony. So we are only in the early stages of getting Harmony on the market but the feedback has been great on behavioural changes.
        Many thanks,
        Michelle

        Reply
  • March 11, 2016 at 8:06 am
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    I bought 3 of the Drury Slow feeders. Spent over $3000. They are crap and do not work. The horses could not pull the hay through as it was too rigid. I was told to go out hourly and pull the hay out with the hay hook. Doing thst whike Feeding 50 horses ? No thanks. They are sitting in a heap behind my hay shed. DO NOT Buy that kind. We use NagBags and Econets now. Fairly satified with them.

    Reply
    • March 12, 2016 at 8:22 pm
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      Ouch! That’s gotta hurt. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. Now that I watch the video again, 2 things are not clear to me. 1st, what happens to the hay bales stacked in the middle? Are you manually supposed to come back each day, cut the strings and put flakes down the sides? Because I can’t see how the horses could get to those center bales. And secondly, I know from my top-load grates that gravity is what keeps the grate pressing onto the hay so the horses can keep pulling hay through. But in this design, how can the horses get to the hay once the top layer (that is pressing against the grate) is gone? I see how this design could just not work well!

      And btw, when you subscribed to this blog, there was a typo in your email address, so your subscription hasn’t gone through – just enter your info again and all should be good.

      Reply
    • November 21, 2016 at 4:41 pm
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      Hi there just read your comments on our feeders and would like to have a conversation with you about your problems. Where your feeders the 4 day version or the 6 day version?

      Reply
  • April 6, 2016 at 5:53 am
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    For pelleted type feeds, oats, etc I use a Pre-Vent Feeder. It prevents my mare from bolting her feed. she can only take small bites now, which keeps her from slinging her feed all over the stall and I think that because she isn’t wasting her feed she is probably not eating sand and dirt anymore when she goes to retrieve it. I guess it’s in the name? Pre-Vent Feeders work and are a great investment! Thanks:)

    Reply
    • April 6, 2016 at 11:57 am
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      That’s a great design John and I didn’t even know those existed! Mine would not waste a drop of their supplements and herbs so I was not even aware of this problem. But it makes sense for older horses too who are often on a fair amount of grain/feed – and slowing them down might help them to chew and get more in. Thanks for sharing this with us!

      Reply
  • October 29, 2016 at 4:52 pm
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    Hi Jini,

    Thank you for the good information. I live and board my horse in the high desert of Central Oregon. She is on a dry lot with anywhere from 5 to 7 other horses. The horses are currently fed on the ground with the hay contained in tractor tires with much of the side walls cut away. While there are enough tires to make sure there is always one more than there are horses they are still eating off volcanic sand and fed three times per day. I would much prefer a slow feeding system of some kind so I am in the process of researching and I found your comments quite helpful. I was wondering if you have ever checked out the “Porta-Grazer” and if so what your opinions of it are? I will be doing some more research to see if there is any kind website where people have rated it. It seems to be a pretty decent feeder, I just wonder how long they last/would the horses destroy them since they are made of some type of plastic. Their website is: porta-grazer.com.
    Anyway, again, thank you for the information.

    Carol

    Reply
    • October 29, 2016 at 10:45 pm
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      Hi Carol, Thanks for sharing this! I looked at their site/videos and my concern was exactly the same as yours! Especially since I watched one of my horses destroy a huge, tough water tub last week by simply hooking his foot inside and pulling until an entire chunk of the bucket that was roped to the wall split off from the main bucket.

      It’s one of the best designs I’ve seen though – I like the way the lid rotates. So I ordered the biggest one (corner feeder). Shipping to Blaine WA is $50 and it will arrive in 1-2 weeks. I’ll post back here and let you know what I think of it after I try it out for a few weeks. If anyone’s going to break it, my Belgian mare will! She continues to pound/bend the crap out of the metal grates. And she’s ripped through 3 hay nets so far. So we’ll see what she thinks of this one – fingers crossed!

      Reply
      • December 11, 2016 at 9:20 pm
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        Hi, Mini. Just wondering what you think about the portagrazer you said you bought. It looks really interesting to me.

        Debie

        Reply
        • December 12, 2016 at 10:14 am
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          Hi Debie and Carol – Well I bought the XL feeder and the lid/locking mechanism is a good one. It is VERY sturdy and nicely heavy. I roped it to a large beam in my barn using chain (see pic). It has been up for 3 weeks and no damage whatsoever.

          Here’s my feedback on it’s function. I have packed it with large, stalky hay (alfalfa) and it worked great. When I packed it with soft strands of hay (orchard grass) it didn’t work so well – they couldn’t get it out and ended up mashing/crushing it into little bits that were then impossible to get out.

          I was trying to figure out why this could be – since the orchard grass works best in both my metal grate slow feeders and hay nets. Then I realized that due to the shape (about 2 foot wide barrel) the horse cannot really get their head/mouth sideways. So they can’t use a lot of angles to pull the hay out. They can mostly only eat straight on and tilted a little bit to the side.

          So now I have ended up just using it as another feeding station when I put out the loose alfalfa. My system right now is to use low-sugar orchard grass in my slow feeders and give alfalfa loose.

          The other issue is that once the horse starts to eat down the hay, their head is disappearing into a hole with no visibility whatsoever. This is fine for the dominant horse or two, but others down on the pecking order will only eat when the more dominant ones are far away – because they can’t move to get away when they can’t see the horse coming!

          If you had a horse in a stall, it would probably work just fine. I don’t think Bermuda would work well in this feeder either. Basically you would need to stick to hay with a good stalk. Or perhaps if you fluffed the hay really well (so packed in less) that might work too.

          On the plus side it is easier to pack than a hay net! Hope that helps.

          Reply
  • November 21, 2016 at 4:34 pm
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    Dear Jini, as the person who invented the Drury Healthy Horse feeders. I would like to inform you and the readers that our ( new name) 6 day hard sided feeders do not cause any problems with the necks having to be adjusted. We have approx. 300, 6 day slow feeders all over North America. We have done numerous studies on every aspect of how the horses eat from our feeders over a 6 year period. Horses are very intelligent animals and are way too smart to bend their necks until they are stiff!!!!!! I think the word anthropomorphism is how I would describe your thoughts above. I have personally sat and watched horses eating from the 6 day feeders, I have spent hours observing them eat and I can tell you with confidence that they eat from different sides and angles ever time they come up to a feeder. The feeders where designed to have the horses eating with their heads down.
    A comment on the steel mesh causing problems in cold weather, not a chance of it happening. Just because you and many others as young children licked a cold fence and got stuck to it does not mean that horses do. We live Barrie Ontario where January, February and much of March often fall to minus 25-40 below, we have never or any of our customers ever had any problems with horses sticking their lips or tongue to the feeders. Eating out of our feeders is not like putting a bit in a horses mouth. We have consulted with numerous Veterinarians and they tell us that horses mouths,lips and tongues are not designed to allow this to happen. Again anthropomorphism comes to mind. Please please don’t use how you feel as to how the horses react.
    Please provide some evidence of your comments it may be helpful in our on going research .
    I would appreciate a response.

    Reply
    • November 26, 2016 at 8:08 pm
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      Hi Bob, Thanks for providing all this information – that’s what this blog is for! However, I didn’t mention anything about stiff necks, I said that for a horse to eat/graze sideways is an unnatural position. No anthropomorphism – just pictorial evidence. Unless a horse is stripping bark from a tree, grazing on grass or forage involves a different neck action to your slow feeder, that’s all I am saying.

      Glad to hear the steel is okay in freezing weather. In a number of the videos I watched (in the comments section) residents of Northern Canada were raising this concern. Personally I have no experience with this aspect. I haven’t seen a slow-motion video of horses eating from a slow feeder, but I have seen one (shot by an equine dentist) that shows just how much the tongue is used when horses are grazing.

      Reply
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  • January 22, 2017 at 8:08 am
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    Any feedback on the Hayboss Feeders?

    Reply
  • April 1, 2017 at 1:46 pm
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    Great overview! My new Tumble Feeder invention addresses many of these issues with the added bonus of transporting the hay for you over any terrain. Plus it makes it fast and easy to rinse allergens from hay. See it in action https://www.facebook.com/tumblefeeder/videos/621101214762944/ Glad you mentioned the visibility issue. I have a short clip on fb that addresses that too.

    Reply

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