A New Way to Feed

In the wintertime, feeding our horses becomes a whole different experience. There is little to no grass available in the pastures, so we must provide them with hay. A horse is supposed to eat around 2% of its body weight in forage, so in the wintertime, this means each horse needs around 25lbs. of hay per day. An average square bale of hay weighs 50lbs., so feeding our 5 horses requires about 2 – 2 1/2 bales of hay per day. However, in the winter when it’s cold, each horse requires more forage to keep warm, so typically whenever it drops down below 20 degrees, we up that amount to about 4 bales of hay per day. We feed twice a day, so that means 1-2 bales in the morning, and 1-2 bales in the evening.

The problem we were experiencing, was that if you just throw a bale or two of hay out to 5 hungry horses, it will be gone within 2-3 hours. Which leaves them standing there in the cold for up to 12 hours with no food in their bellies. This just didn’t seem right to us, so we decided to do a bit of research, and here’s what we found out.

Without hay to chew on and digest, they can’t keep themselves warm in cold temperatures very easily. Not only that, but horses were designed to eat almost continuously. They were not designed to go more than 4 hours without food in their bellies. Going hungry longer than that can cause gastrointestinal issues. No wonder our horses were always standing at the gate whinnying for us to feed them! They were starving! This caused them to be more aggressive towards each other during feeding time and much more stressed.

After much research, we found some great websites explaining this “new” way of feeding horses hay, known as slow feeding. Throwing hay out to horses loose allows them to take huge mouthfuls and basically gulp it down as fast as possible, as Sadie can demonstrate for you:

It has been discovered that using a “slow feeder” hay net, will cause your horses to have to take smaller bites, and more of them, which doubles and possibly even triples the amount of time it takes a horse to eat the same amount of hay. The netting has holes in it that have an opening of about 1 1/2″. This makes each bite more like grazing out in the pasture. The grass isn’t just laying out there loose, free for the horses to gulp up. The grass is held to the ground by its roots, causing the horses to take small bites over and over again.

After researching where we could find the best netting, we tried ordering some pre-made hay bags from a lady in Australia. Unfortunately, soon after it arrived, we saw that it just wasn’t strong enough to hold up to the horses’ teeth. They quickly tore the netting and made the holes too big. So after more research, we finally settled on some hockey goal netting from Arizona Hockey Supply. They sell bulk netting, so we had to decide how we were going to use this netting. We decided the best idea would be to use it as a complement to our hay baskets we already had. Our hay baskets are 5′ in diameter, round, and about 3-4 ft. tall. They can hold a full bale of hay easily, they keep the hay off the ground which keeps it dry and clean, and they allow the horses to still eat with their heads down in a natural eating position, which keeps dust and hay particles from falling into their noses and eyes and causing problems. Here’s a picture of the hay basket keeping the hay off of the muddy ground:

So we decided we’d cut and shape the netting to sit over the hay in the hay basket. Not only will this keep them from eating through the hay too quickly, but it will also keep the hay in the basket, which was a challenge in the past because the horses enjoyed knocking it out of the basket so they could get to the small pieces at the bottom.

But instead of just tying the netting around the hay basket and bunjee chording it in, we came up with the idea of creating a circular hoop, very much like a hula hoop, that we could tie the netting onto, which would then allow us to clip the hoop itself to the hay basket, making it much easier to put the hay in. Here’s a picture of our first attempt:

This hoop worked well for about 2 days, but then we quickly realized it just wasn’t sturdy enough to hold up against the horses. It bent from the weight of the netting, and the horses figured out that they could bend it up with their noses, and get to the hay underneath without having to eat through the net. So we went back to Lowe’s and found a thicker, stronger piece of tubing to build our hoop out of. We took the netting off the old hoop and put it on the new one we made, and it is working great. It hold’s its circular shape without a problem!

The goal with this type of “slow feeding” is to make sure the horses’ hay supply never runs out, which teaches them they don’t need to eat as much as they can immediately. They learn that there’s always hay in the basket, so there’s no need to try to gulp it down. It took our horses a few days to figure out and get comfortable eating through the netting, but now they love it. Especially Scooter, our 30 year old horse. His teeth aren’t the best due to his age, and before, when the hay was loose, he couldn’t eat it. He’d try to take a bite, but he’d get so much in his mouth that he’d have to spit it all back out. Now, it’s impossible for him to get a huge mouthful, so he can graze away as though he’s taking little bites of grass. It’s made such a difference!!

Now our horses are never without hay, and we haven’t had to increase how much we give them to make it that way. They no longer stand for hours on end through the cold waiting for hay. It’s so obvious how much happier they are. There’s no aggressive fighting between them during feeding time, and they don’t rush to eat as much as possible when we add more hay. It’s so nice to go out and see happy, full horses!


  • Your industrious determination to continue to learn through research and experience new and better ways to care for your horses and make your ranch work well is so impressive and enjoyable to read about. Thanks for these interesting posts, God Bless you in every way.

  • We’ve tried to replicate your design, but we can’t seem to find stiff enough tubing. Would you be willing to share the detailed specs on the blue tubing you got from – name of product and manufacturer? Thank you!!

    • If you live nearby we’d be happy to give ours to you because we no longer use them! However, assuming you don’t live nearby, we bought these from Lowe’s, but I can’t remember which department, either plumbing or electrical I believe. 🙁 Maybe take the pic in the post above and show it to an associate there, and they could guide you to the right stuff?

      Sorry I can’t give you more info!

        • Sorry for the delay in responding! We are no longer using the hay baskets because the horses were able to knock the hay up and out of them, rendering them pretty useless. They worked once we put the nets over the top, but we still had to pull a wheelbarrow of hay into each corral and unclip the nets every time. Putting hay nets on the fence is so much easier for us because there are no clips to deal with and we don’t have to go into the corrals to feed hay.

  • Hello,

    I stumbled across your page on the slow feeder set up you made. I have made 4×4 wooden boxes with grates on the top and the horses are tearing up the grates and impaling themselves. I am curious about this setup, how it worked for you and why you are not using it anymore? I need to buy about 12 of the hay baskets, which is an investment for us……We have about 45 horses in our program, in Arizona on dry lot. We are a horse rescue mentorship program with at-risk youth. Need to keep the horses grazing all day so they don’t eat sand. This process has been my nemesis. 🙁 I just want to know your pros and cons from your experience. Thanks so much. Looking forward to a response.

    • Sorry again for the delay in responding!

      Pros of using the homemade hay nets on the fences:
      *Keeps the hay up off the ground, which is great if you deal with mud or sand
      *Makes the same amount of hay last a great deal longer because the size of the holes in the net requires the horse to take lots of small bites slowing their eating down significantly. Because of this, it saves you money on hay and you have happier horses because their tummy’s aren’t empty for as long between feedings.
      *Much less hay gets wasted
      *Easy to stuff hay into nets! The nets are permanently attached to the fence, so you don’t have to take them off to stuff and then put them back on like other typical hay bags.
      *If you attach them to your outer fences, you don’t have to open and close gates to bring hay in and out.

      *If you deal with wet conditions and tend to have mud, the areas in front of the nets will slowly build up with mud, hay, urine, manure, etc. You either have to keep it raked out frequently or have a bobcat or backhoe scoop the buildup away every 6 months to a year depending on your conditions. Another option is to make the nets moveable, and move them to a new spot periodically to keep the area from getting too bad.
      *For us the nets have lasted about 2-3 years before they start wearing down and developing holes in the areas where the horses eat from the most. They likely wear down this quickly for us due to freezing and thawing conditions each winter which makes the nets more brittle. We generally take some twine and patch these holes as they develop, until there are too many, then we buy more netting and make a new net. Even though you have to spend more money every 3 years on new nets, we’ve found that the amount of money it saves us on hay and ease of feeding makes it worth the price.

      One net should work for 2-4 horses depending on the width of the net and how well your horses get along.

      That’s all I can think of for now. Let me know if you have any more questions, I’m happy to help!

    • Oops, just looked back at the post and realized it doesn’t say anything about the hay nets we’ve begun using. I’m going to do a quick blog post about the nets so you can see pics and links!


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