I'm thoroughly convinced: hay nets are the easiest, most simple, versatile and cost effective way to significantly improve your horse's quality of life. If you're crafty, you can utilize them to fulfil three crucial needs that your horse requires! There is a nice coupon at the end of this post if you'd like to skip ahead 😉
I don't think there is a horse that would be negatively impacted by the introduction of a slow-feeding hay net in their lifestyle. Well, horses with chewing disabilities perhaps. If your horse can chew hay, then they can benefit from a hay net! The digestive system of the horse was built around the specific eating style of grazing. Grazing means consuming small amounts of food, spread out over a long period of time. Most horses will consume their hay pretty quickly when fed in meals, and if fed endless loose hay might eat their hay at a rate much higher than their body needs. If you feed the horse their regular meals in a slow-feeder, their consumption rate will be instantly decreased and their meal time extended. Immediately, you have made a positive impact in your horse's digestive health with this one change!
#1: Simulating Grazing for Digestive Health
The horse produces stomach acid at a constant rate. This differs from us, as we only produce this acid upon anticipation or consumption of food. Since horses are grazers to their core, their bodies think they are consuming bits of food all day. Their saliva is the main buffer of stomach acid, protecting the lining of their tummies from ulcers. Every time your horse chews a bite of food, they swallow some saliva along with it! This buffers the acid, and your horse is kept comfortable. If you withhold food for as little as 20 minutes, your horse may begin to feel hungry - the natural response to the discomfort caused by an unbuffered internal environment. Providing your horse with 24/7 access to a low calorie forage hay will eliminate this risk, as well as help maintain a healthy gut.
#2: Encouraging Movement
Even if you are limited on space, placing your hay in different areas of your horse's living space can encourage movement. Always try to keep food opposite from water, so that your horse will inevitably travel that distance throughout the day! Movement will increase circulation throughout the body, carrying essential nutrients from head to hoof. Hay nets are so portable, that you can mix it up to keep things interesting for your horse. You can even fill multiple nets, placing them in multiple corners of their space.
#3: Mental Stimulation
As grazing animals, horses are designed to be doing something for at least 17 hours each day (grazing). They want to be moving about, searching for food and water, grazing, socializing and playing. A majority of horses today are kept from much of this, often living in stalls by themselves. It is so common to walk down a barn aisle and see horses pacing, chewing, cribbing, being aggressive with their neighbors, and other "stall vices". These horses are lacking many of their essentials! The least we can do is provide them with one thing: constant access to a nutritionally appropriate grass hay. Having something to graze on all day will fill a huge gap for mental stimulation. Though not providing the same quality of stimulation as large pasture with enrichment and a social group, it will allow the horse to do its main job as a horse. And we don't even need to change anything about the feeding routine to immediately improve things for the horse, we simply need to change how we do it. If you purchase a net style feeder, you just need to place your hay into this feeder instead of whichever feeder you were using previously.
Choosing a Hay Net
Depending on your horse and the type of hay you feed, you can find hay nets with opening sizes to best suit your needs. An easy keeper, or aggressive eater, would do best on a more challenging hay net. Smaller hole sizes will make it more difficult to get the hay out, and force the horse to slow down more drastically. A horse that is harder to keep weight on might benefit from an easier one! Some hay is easier or harder to fit through the openings as well, making them easier or more challenging for the horse to extract from the net. The most important thing to note if you're going to provide 24/7 access grass hay - make sure you are in fact providing a low calorie grass hay if you have an easy keeper. Trubee is a very easy keeper, and he will actually stay more thin when provided with 24/7 grass hay. Horses do not get fat this way, given they are receiving adequate exercise to maintain their health as well.
Here is a photo that shows the difference between 1", 1.25", and 1.75" opening sizes with the same hay in each:
My first net was the 1.75" opening size, and I was very successful in transitioning my horses to 24/7 grass hay with this option! I switched to the 1.25" because the type of hay I was feeding was coming out a bit too easily from the larger hole, and they were dropping more hay than I wanted. This medium difficulty hay net has been perfect for us, and my horses can actually go some time without access to 24/7 hay and still be self-regulating when reintroduced to the net.
My friend's mare is a next level easy-keeper, and the most aggressive eater I've ever seen! She will never pause from trying to eat as much as she possibly can. She uses the 1" opening size, which allows her 1.5 flakes of hay to last all night long. Her 3 week old foal is pictured above trying to be a big kid and eat hay too 🙂
Half bale size nets are perfect for extending your regular twice a day feedings. My favorite brand, HayChix, also has some cool stall options that make feeding with nets just as quick as feeding with any other feeder.
If you are providing 24/7 access to grass hay, I highly recommend their Full Bale nets. You will not need to fill these everyday, which is so great! Between my two, they usually get through a grass hay bale every 4 days. It totally depends on how yummy the hay is - less tasty hay obviously lasts them longer, and especially delicious hay might be consumed in as little as 2-3 days the first time! The full bale nets are best if tied to a post or wall and contained in a feed bin, but can be on the ground as well. If left on the ground, you cannot use these nets with shod horses for the risk of the shoe getting caught in the net. They also recommend covering anything on blankets that might get caught, and keeping away horned animals!
I do have a coupon for 20% off a HayChix net if you decide to make the switch! It only works for first time customers, so be sure to get everything you want in the first order 🙂