In recent decades,  slow feeding has gained popularity with horse owners. Slow feeders are nets or solid feeders with small to medium-sized openings for hay access.

Their purpose is to slow down the rate at which a horse eats, allowing the forage to last longer, minimizing the time your horse spends on an empty stomach.

Slow feeders support more natural equine grazing behaviours, especially when compared to feeding two or even three large meals per day. These feeders may also help to prevent boredom and reduce the expression of stereotypic behaviours.

Slow feeders also benefit easy keepers, overweight horses and horses with metabolic issues by helping to reduce calorie intake without restricting access to feed.

Natural Equine Grazing Behavior

Horses are trickle feeders that have evolved to eat numerous small, forage-based meals throughout the day. They are evolutionarily adapted to a high-fibre and low-energy roughage diet.

In the wild, horses are continually on the move as they graze, travelling up to 25 miles per day. Domestic horses have the same behavioural needs as wild horses but aren’t able to travel as far, which can lead to problems such as obesity.

Under natural conditions, horses spend approximately 12 – 16 hours per day foraging and grazing, rarely pausing feed intake for more than a few hours. [1][2]

Feeding Patterns

Adequate forage is one of the most important factors affecting the overall well-being of the horse. A horse’s natural grazing time is affected by the type and availability of forage, nutrient demand, and consumption behaviour. [1][2]

When food is abundant, horses will develop patterns of eating that are related to light-dark cycles, as well as other environmental cycles.

Studies show that 60-70% of feed intake occurs during the daytime, while 30-40% occurs at night. Interruptions in grazing are mainly due to the horse’s need to engage in other behaviours such as resting, interacting with other horses, and comfort activities. [1][2][3]

Equine Digestive System

The horse’s need for frequent grazing is linked to how its digestive system functions. Compared to other large mammals, the horse has a relatively small stomach that can only hold 2-4 gallons at a time. [11]

As a horse grazes, the constant flow of saliva and feed material into the stomach acts as a buffer, protecting against excess gastric acidity.

Because of this, providing domestic horses with frequent feedings or free access to hay or pasture can help prevent conditions such as gastric ulcers. [4]

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Drawbacks of Modern Feeding Practices

Many domesticated horses are kept in stalls or dry lots and receive two to three large meals per day.

Horses may have restricted or rationed forage access, potentially leaving the horse without food for long periods of time. One study showed that horses fed two or three meals daily went approximately nine hours at night with no forage. [1]

Lack of forage over prolonged periods of time can put a horse at risk for a number of digestive and behavioural problems. Some of these problems include:

Increased Risk of Stereotypical Behaviors

Studies show that when horses don’t have enough forage to eat, they will find alternate ways to carry out foraging-related behaviours. This may include eating stall bedding or stereotypical behaviours like wood chewing or cribbing.

Lack of roughage in the diet is considered one of the leading causes of behavioural disorders in horses. [1][5][6]

Horses with inadequate fibre or long gaps in forage intake may also develop aggressive behaviour. [6]

Many horses are fed higher amounts of concentrates in lieu of more hay. Eating cereal-based concentrates instead of forage reduces chewing time and saliva production and can lead to gut issues, such as ulcers. [6]

Researchers believe that some stereotypical behaviours may be linked directly to gastrointestinal discomfort. [6]

Gastric Ulcers and Other Digestive Problems

Thoroughbred racehorses have the highest reported prevalence of gastric ulcers, with 90% of horses affected. However, other classes of horses are also reported to have high rates of ulceration, including: [4][7]

Intermittent feeding (in which the horse goes without food for periods), along with stall confinement, appears to contribute to the development of gastric ulcers. [4][7]

Because the horse’s stomach continually secretes acid, saliva (produced by chewing food) is needed to buffer this acid. When horses go for extended periods without eating, unbuffered gastric acid can eat away at the stomach lining, causing ulcers.

Research shows that the risk of grade II gastric ulcers is significantly higher if horses go without food for 6 hours or longer. Long periods without forage may also lead to constipation or colic in some horses. [1]

Increased Stress

Forage restriction can cause horses to experience stress. Chronically stressed horses have high levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

This makes tissues more resistant to insulin, causing high insulin levels and making it harder to mobilize fat from storage sites. [8]

Free Choice Feeding

Feeding hay to your horse on a free choice (ad libitum) basis ensures they don’t go for long periods without food. However, feeding this way can be costly and more labour-intensive than feeding two or three times per day.

Round bales are commonly used for free choice feeding, but owners report concerns with excessive hay waste, an inability to control weight gain, and an increase in respiratory disorders such as recurrent airway obstruction. [9]

Some horse owners also do not want to feed free choice forage because of misconceptions that a forage-based diet cannot support optimal performance. [5]

For many horses, providing unlimited access to hay works well and promotes physical and mental well-being. One study showed that ad libitum access to forage resulted in fewer abnormal behaviours in horses. [9]

Metabolic or overweight horses must have their calorie intake carefully monitored to avoid oversupplying energy in the diet. Unrestricted access to high-quality hay or pasture and limited exercise can lead to weight gain and excessive body condition.

Obese horses are more likely to develop laminitis, hyperlipemia, insulin resistance (IR), reproductive problems, arthritis and equine metabolic syndrome (EMS). [4]

Slow Feeders for Horses

To meet their basic physical and psychological needs, horses should not go without foraging for more than four hours daily. [1] Given the constraints of modern equine management, how can you achieve this in a cost-effective manner? One answer is using slow feeders.

Slow feeders are different from traditional hay feeders. There are many different designs, but most of these feeders have small to medium-sized holes through which the horse can obtain hay.

This design slows down a horse’s hay consumption rate and allows hay to be available over a longer period.

When slow feeders are kept full, they allow the horse to eat forage whenever they please, mimicking their natural grazing behaviour, while limiting overeating. [8]

Benefits of Extending Foraging Time

Researchers believe that providing more foraging opportunities and prolonging hay availability has many benefits. Some of these include:

  • Increasing the frequency of positive social interactions between horses kept in groups
  • Decreasing aggressive behaviours
  • Improving overall welfare
  • Supporting weight loss while increasing the amount of time spent eating
  • Helping to prevent gut dysfunction and stereotypical behavior [4][6]

Types of Slow Feeders

Hay Net Slow Feeders

Traditional hay nets and hay bags are not the same as slow-feeder nets. Traditional hay nets have large openings which allow hay to be easily eaten. Slow feeders, on the other hand, have much smaller openings.

Slow feeders with 1.5 – 1.75 inch openings are usually suitable for a full-sized horse. Smaller holes may lead to frustration and fatigue, which may cause the horse to stop eating. It’s best to choose a hole size that will slow down consumption but not cause frustration. [8]

Purchasing a slow feeder from a reputable manufacturer is a better idea than trying to make one on your own. Commercial slow feeders are made from heavy-duty fabric that resists tearing and fraying. These slow feeders are less likely to come apart and cause hazards for your horse. [8]

Slow feeders come in various sizes that can hold anywhere from a few flakes to an entire round bale. Many feeders can be attached to a wall, tree, or sturdy post at a low level. Others are designed to be placed on the ground. [8]

You can also try double-layering standard hay nets if slow-feeder nets are not an option.

Hard Slow Feeders

Aside from slow feeder hay nets or bags, several hard slow feeders are also available on the market. If you prefer this type of feeder, choose one made of sturdy plastic or hard rubber that will hold up against weather as well as wear and tear.

It is better to buy a hard slow feeder from a reputable manufacturer rather than build one on your own. [8]

Common styles for hard slow feeders include:

  • Hay baskets consisting of a round, metal frame with a removable plastic basket
  • Barrel-shaped or box-shaped feeders

One benefit of hard slow feeders is that they are usually easy to fill and hold more hay than some hay nets. [8] This means they do not need to be re-filled as often.

Round Bale Slow Feeders

Several companies have designed slow feeders for use with large round bales. These feeders not only help prevent hay waste that is common with round bales but also slow down the horse’s consumption so the bale lasts longer.

Using a slow feed round bale feeder can also prevent horses from putting their head into the bale and breathing in dust, leading to respiratory issues such as equine asthma.

Round bale slow feeders should not be confused with hard-style feeders that help to prevent hay wasting with round bales but don’t necessarily slow the rate of hay consumption.

How to Use Slow Feeders

When using any slow feeder, it’s recommended to implement at least two smaller-sized feeders per horse and place them at different locations in the stall, paddock, or pasture. Placing the feeders as far apart as possible will help to encourage movement and also minimize fighting among herd mates. [8]

If introducing a slow feeder for the first time, allow your horse to become familiar with it by placing loose hay on the ground next to the feeder. Most horses will learn how to use the slow feeder within a few days, but some take longer to acclimate. [8]

Make sure to watch for signs of frustration during the initial phase of using slow feeders. If the horse is having difficulty getting hay from the feeder, pawing at the feeder, or refusing to eat, you may need to try one with bigger openings or possibly a different style. [8]

Cautions with Slow Feeders

Many hay net slow feeders are made from strong, unbreakable cording, which may pose a hazard for horses with shoes.  To avoid this problem, put the hay net into a bin such as an old water trough or solid feeder. [10]

Horse owners should be aware that slow feeders do not come without some risk. Metal grates on hard feeders can damage teeth, for instance. [10]

Inspect slow feeders regularly to make sure they are holding up to wear and tear and not coming apart. Loose cording could be swallowed by the horse and cause a digestive problem.

It’s important to place slow feeders on the ground or tie/affix them in a low position. This allows the horse to chew with their head down, which is more in line with their natural physiology.

Placing hay nets too high up can lead to respiratory problems as well as strain on the musculoskeletal system. [8][10] Eating with their head down prevents stress on the muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, and skeletal system. [8]


Slow feeders are a great way to ensure your horse has hay available around the clock while preventing overeating. Extending foraging time can reduce the risk of ulcers, colic and behavioural issues.

Make sure to choose a slow feeder style and size that is suitable for your horse: full-size horses will need a larger hole size than ponies or miniature horses.

Though slow feeders work well for many horses, underweight horses, older horses with bad teeth, and horses with higher energy requirements may not be able to get as much hay as they need from the feeder. This can lead to weight loss and/or other problems. For these horses, free-choice feeding is likely your best option.

To use slow feeders safely, they should be placed in a low position or on the ground. This will allow your horse to eat in the head-down position, which is best for chewing, saliva production, and preventing strain on the neck and body.

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  1. Baumgartner, M. et al. Common Feeding Practices Pose A Risk to the Welfare of Horses When Kept on Non-Edible Bedding. Animals (Basel). 2020
  2. Griffin, A. Horse Feeding Behavior. University of Kentucky Extension Foundation. 2019.
  3. Using slow feed hay nets. University of Minnesota Extension. 2021.
  4. Aristizabel, F. et al. The effect of a hay grid feeder on feed consumption and measurement of the gastric pH using an intragastric electrode device in horses: A preliminary report. Equine Vet J. 2014.
  5. Hodgson, S. et al. Posture and Pull Pressure by Horses When Eating Hay or Haylage from a Hay Net Hung at Various Positions. Animals (Basel). 2022.
  6. Seabra, J.C. et al. Factors Associated With the Development and Prevalence of Abnormal Behaviors in Horses: Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. J Equine Vet Sci. 2021
  7. McClure, S.R. Equine Gastric Ulcers: Special Care and Nutrition. AAEP. 2016.
  8. Getty, J.M. The Correct Way to Use Slow Feeders. Getty Equine Nutrition.
  9. Martinson, K. et al. Round-bale feeder design affects hay waste and economics during horse feeding. Journal of Animal Science. 2012.
  10. Sullivan, N. 6 Dangers of Slow Feeders. On Course Equine Nutrition. 2021.
  11. Auwerda, P. Digestive Anatomy and Physiology of the Horse. Iowa State University of Science and Technology. Equine Science.