For horses living full-time on sufficient pasture, the facts above may not be an issue. For horses on largely hay diets, whether stabled, on winter pastures or in dry lots, however, feeding only twice or even three times a day can result in moderate to extreme fluctuations in blood glucose and leptin (a hormone that plays a key role in appetite and metabolism), contributing to various metabolic disorders from obesity to laminitis. For horses living outdoors in the cold, the heat production that is a by-product of microbial fermentation of roughage in the hind gut can be crucial to retaining sufficient body heat and maintaining condition. It behooves us owners, therefore, to make sure our feeding time schedules mimic, as closely as possible, the natural one of continuous and slow. This can be made easier with the plethora of slow-feeding devices that are now available.
Some of the benefits touted by the manufacturers include:
- Reducing feed-time anxiety – some horses can be so hungry at feeding time that you can get squabbling and dangerous fence running occurring. Continuous feed availability makes feeding time safer for horses and the humans bringing the food.
- Reducing stress due to hunger and also dips and rises in activity levels. This can reduce or eliminate feeding related stereotypies such as cribbing, weaving and wood chewing. Studies in Japan and Australia have shown that horses can start to crib two hours after finishing their feed ration.
- Reducing the likelihood of ulcers. The horse’s stomach produces acid non-stop throughout the entire day and can produce up to 16 gallons of acidic fluid every 24 hours. In a constant grazing setting, a steady flow of acid is needed for digestion, and the roughage and saliva help neutralize the acid. Higher intake of grain can increase acid levels as can exercise and stress. Without the buffering action of roughage and saliva, the acid can eat through the stomach lining, causing ulcers in as little as five days.
- Sand colic is avoided as the horses are not eating off the ground. This can also reduce parasite loads.
- Saving money and reducing feed wastage. Feeders reduce trampling and defecating on hay as well as prevent chaff from blowing away.
- Stabilizing the horse’s metabolism, reducing obesity and thus helping with insulin resistance and equine metabolic syndrome and laminitis. Horses, on average, actually eat less hay from slow feeders while still having continuous access to it. Estimates put the reduction in intake around 50 per cent without any loss of condition.
- Lowering labour costs. Some feeders need to be filled only once or twice a day while larger pasture feeders can last up to several days.