With all of you a little more focused on keeping groceries stocked up in the cupboards and finding everything you need at the store, I thought it might be a good time to share some information and history on what meal time looks like for this herd.
Truthfully, the phrase “meal time” doesn’t really apply to horses, or shouldn’t, as we’re designed to eat almost continuously throughout the day. In fact, if our stomachs go more than three hours without food, in addition to getting grumpy, there’s a danger of developing ulcers.
I’ve been here since 2004 and I’ve witnessed the full range of feeding methods employed to keep us as healthy and happy as possible. In the beginning, we were free-fed round bales. We horses loved it. Endless food, all the time, and the side benefits of having soft bedding and a good place to pee (nobody likes to splash). But Nevada and I got fat, Alta the Thoroughbred mare got a lung inflammation that required some expensive medication, and there was a lot of wasted hay. Although I’m not sure I’d call a nice soft bed or a good urinal a waste. You?
After the Alta thing, they moved on to small square bales, placing individual meals in tire feeders to keep the hay from blowing to the next acreage. A horse will eat anywhere from 1.5-3 per cent of his body weight per day, depending on temperature and our inclination to gluttony, which translates to 15-30 pounds of hay per day split into at least two meals. It takes a horse one to two hours to eat twenty pounds of hay, which makes for a lot of standing-around-with-nothing-to-eat hours, not to mention the agony of staring at the house and waiting for the door to swing open.
Enter … slow feeder nets.
These are a relatively new addition to horse feeding programs and I wasn’t sure I liked them at first. There have been hay nets for generations of horses, but the old-school type have large holes, big enough to stick my muzzle into. The slow feeder bags have small holes, one to two inches square, so a guy has to work the hay through the holes with lips and teeth. At first, they seemed like cruel devices developed for horse torture, but, after a week or so, we were all sucking hay out of those nets like pros. The upside? Our feed lasted a lot longer. T and Nollind still use the net bags for hanging in the shelter when the weather is ugly, but they found a less labour-intensive way to keep enough feed out for four to five days.
A few years ago, T went looking for the latest and greatest in slow feeders. There are lots of them out there to accommodate different types of bales and a variety of setups. When she ran across a photo of a plastic barrel hanging on a fence with a net hanging off the bottom, she and Nollind went right to work cutting up rain barrels and stringing nets. Since horses eat with our noses pointed down, she wasn’t sure how we’d make out with the barrel nets but, you know, we equines are nothing if not creative and we quickly sorted out how to eat from the side or tilt our heads slightly to bite straight on. A couple of test prototypes morphed into ten feeders that hold almost as many bales.
I still prefer to eat loose hay off the ground over any type of meter-it-out feeder, but I appreciate having access to food twenty-four-seven, even if I do have to work for it.
I sometimes wonder what the next incarnation of our feeding system will be. We had two round bales again this winter after not seeing them for over a decade, but I think that was just a stop-gap in a low hay year.
For now, it’s spring, the best time of year for us horses, because our buffet is sprouting from the ground. Nothing compares to green grass. And I’m sure T and Nollind will agree with you after almost seven months of carting bales around, filling feeders, and digging hay out of their clothes.