Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor
In most parts of the world, pasture is, at best, a seasonal thing. For a good chunk of the year, most of us who are feeding horses have to replace green grass with the dried variety.
Hay, as we all know, is both bulky and vulnerable to the weather. It's also not inexpensive, even if you grow your own. So it's little wonder that humans, in their unflagging drive to build the better mousetrap, are constantly coming up with better ways to feed hay, both indoors and out.
There are certainly arguments in favor of feeding hay on the ground and letting the horses have at it. Feeding from the ground allows horses to eat in the posture for which they were designed, with their heads down. This minimizes the amount of dust and mold spores they inhale from their forage, and it allows their respiratory passages to drain each time they lower their heads.
But there are disadvantages to feeding this way as well. First and foremost, there's the matter of wastage. Particularly when you feed hay in a communal turnout situation, nearly as much might be trampled as eaten. Outside horses also tend to use strewn hay as a mattress rather than sustenance when the ground is wet or chilly.
Secondly, hay exposed to rain and snow tends to become unacceptably moldy, which makes it both unpalatable and unheal-thy to the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts. Hay served indoors in individual stalls might not suffer this problem, but it can easily become polluted with manure and urine to similar effect.
Hence the popularity of hay feeders, which are designed to keep hay off the ground and sheltered from the elements to reduce wastage.
It's a simple idea, but some hay feeders accomplish these goals better than others.
A good outdoor hay feeder, whether it is designed to accommodate large round bales of hay or flakes from a rectangular bale, should meet a number of objectives:
- It should be sturdy and safe, with no sharp edges, openings that could trap a foot, or overhead bars where a horse could bash his head or rub his mane;
- It should offer hay so that horses can eat with a "normal" posture instead of craning their heads and necks at strange angles;
- It should keep the hay contained to reduce wastage;
- It should be designed so a group of horses can feed safely while minimizing squabbles;
- It should be relatively portable (with a tractor) while remaining solid enough that horses can't shift it or tip it over;
- It should be easy to clean; and
- It should (ideally) protect the hay from rain and snow above, and water seeping from wet ground below.
Safety is the No. 1 concern when it comes to hay feeders. Says Rebecca Baird, a horse owner in Aiken, S.C., "As a general rule, I don't like hay feeders because of the possibility of heads and legs getting caught in them. I used to work as a night nurse in an equine hospital, and I have seen fatal injuries from both types of incidents. That's not to say that millions of people don't use them safely, but I will never be able to forget the horses I cared for who died because of hay feeder accidents.
"I don't like anything that has spaces large enough for hooves to fit through, and I don't like things with defined 'head spaces' either," she adds.
Traditional hay racks, similar to those used for cattle and sheep, were designed with a large V-shaped metal grill into which hay was thrown, and sometimes a tray underneath to catch leaf-shatter and/or to offer grain. They had the advantage of a grill placed high enough that it was unlikely for a horse to trap a hoof between the bars, but the downside was that dust particles tended to rain down into eyes and nostrils as the horse ate. This type of hay rack has fallen out of favor among horse owners as better designs have become available.
One of the simplest is a metal ring that is placed around a round bale of hay. It does nothing to get hay up off the ground (al-though that can be aided by placing a wooden pallet in the center before plunking down the round bale), but the ring does limit the amount of hay that horses can drag out and trample. Most of these feeders are made in three or four sections held together with pins, making them relatively easy to open, close, move, and store. But one should be careful to choose a design that is safe for horses.
Round bale ring feeders intended for cattle usually have openings through which the slow-moving ruminants insert their heads, but reactionary equines can easily do themselves a head injury on the upper bar if they pull back quickly. Much safer is the "tombstone" style round bale feeder designed for horses; it has no overhead bars. They are available for a few hundred dollars from farm supply stores.
Another simple design is the "Big Bale Buddy" (bigbalebuddy.com), which is a durable 1500-denier woven polypropylene cover for round bales. Although it can be a bit of a struggle pulling the cover on the bale (particularly if you have only one set of hands on duty), the Big Bale Buddy limits wastage, keeps the bale clean and dry, and has no sharp edges or rigid surfaces on which a horse could hurt himself. Elastic at both ends allows you to gradually peel back the cover as the bale gets eaten, and the Canadian manufacturers claim the material is rot-, stain-, and UV-resistant, and that it will remain flexible even in extreme cold. It's also fairly inexpensive, running in the $90-100 range, depending on size.
Eventer Jennifer Sullivan-Holder, of Midland, N.C., says, "The Bale Buddies are nice for pastures where I want to be able to move the round bales more often, and to which I have easy access with the Bobcat. It's a little more time- and labor-intensive to put the wrap around the bale, flip it back over to pull it up, and so forth, but I like the fact that there are no sharp edges."
Another Canadian design that gets rave reviews from horse owners is the Duplessis hay feeder (duplessishorsefeeder.com). Resembling a child's plastic playhouse, the Duplessis feeder is essentially a rectangular "hut" that can be placed over a round bale to shield it from weather. Eight large oval "windows" in the Duplessis cover allow horses access to the hay within. The manufacturers claim using the feeder can reduce wastage by up to 30%.
"I am on my third season with two of the Duplessis 'hay domes' and think they are the greatest," says owner Melanie Hughes of Niagara Falls, Ontario. "There is very little waste, and the horses clean every bit of hay right up because it is kept covered and doesn't get spoiled by the weather.
"They are easy to flip over and back up again over the large round bales, and they can be easily moved by hand or tractor," Hughes adds.
Taking into account the habits of local wildlife is important when choosing a feeder. A Texas owner points out that any feeder that is low to the ground can provide a cozy hiding place for rattlesnakes. Sooner or later a horse could get bitten. Where ve-nomous snakes are an issue, she says, owners should feed on the ground, or high off the ground with open space below.
The "hay basket," another relatively new hay feeding design, would fill the bill in such locales. It consists of a round metal frame, within which rests a removable plastic basket with large slats for drainage. The plastic basket is suspended off the ground so hay will not soak in moisture or get trampled, and the metal frame can be easily rolled from location to location. While it will not accommodate a round bale, the hay basket will easily hold several rectangular bales' worth of flakes to keep a small herd going for a few days.
"I'm very happy with the hay basket I bought earlier this year for feeding square bales," says Kathy Viele, an owner in Easton, Kan. "I keep hay in front of my three Thoroughbreds 24/7 without it getting spoiled or trampled into the ground. It's very easy for one person to move around, but stable and safe for the horses. It keeps hay off the ground, but lets the horses eat with a natural head position. Plus there's nowhere for a hoof to get caught. With the slats in the basket, it doesn't matter if the hay gets rained on, as it drains well."
The Slow Hay Movement
Indoors, it's far more likely that you'll just toss a few flakes of hay in the corner of the stall than use a feeder; the overhead racks once in common usage are persona non grata in most modern barns because they tended to dump dust into horses' eyes, ears, and nostrils, and they could easily trap the hoof of a rambunctious animal indulging in a bit of indoor ballet.
Some owners, however, prefer using a haynet on the theory that it cuts down on wastage. But haynets need to be hung quite high, because as they empty they tend to droop and could also become a potential trap for hooves. Same end problem: hay suspended overhead dumps dust particles where they can do the most harm.
Recently, there has been a trend towards "slow feeding" by using haynets with much smaller openings than the traditional nylon kind. Proponents say that just as appreciating your food slowly is healthier than gulping down something from a fast-food joint, using a fine-mesh feeder to offer hay slows horses down, encourages them to chew each mouthful more thoroughly, reduces the risk of obesity (an important consideration for metabolically efficient breeds and for any horse diagnosed as insulin-resistant), and makes hay last much longer with almost zero wastage. Using slow feeding, a single flake might entertain a horse for three or four times as long as it would if it were offered sans the fine mesh.
Creativity seems to be the hallmark of the slow feeding movement, with owners successfully recycling everything from tennis nets to hockey goal netting. Some have even employed twine or cotton string to weave their own fine-mesh haynets, calling upon macramé skills honed in the 1970s.
"I swear by my small-mesh haynets," says Talla Chiodo, who breeds silver dapple Paints at her Silver Spring Farm in Ankeny, Iowa. "They drastically cut down on the amount of wasted hay, and they slow eating so each horse is occupied longer."
Manufacturers have also gotten on the bandwagon. One company with "slow feeding" designs for indoor/outdoor use is Thin Air Canvas Inc., makers of the NibbleNet (thinaircanvas.com/nibblenet/nibblenetframe.htm). These fine-mesh hay bags are made of webbing and waterproof heavy-duty vinyl. After filling the net with hay, snap it to a solid surface for easy access. The company suggests you make a simple plywood platform for horizontal access, but you can also suspend it from a tree, sturdy post, or the stall wall.
You might choose to build a "grazing feeder," storing hay behind a horizontal or vertical steel grid with 2-by-2-inch openings. A simple wooden box can suffice, with an opening for adding hay and a method for sliding out the metal grid for cleaning. These feeders provide a similar slow feeding effect, but, if solidly built, they might be safer than a soft haynet-style feeder for horses who are shod (shoe heels could conceivably get caught in a fine-mesh haynet, with panic ensuing).
Consider your horse's personality and environment when deciding on the perfect hay feeding scenario. If you choose to use a hay feeder, make sure you pick one that not only makes your life simpler and makes your hay go further, but also one that is safe for your animals.
About the Author
Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.