The original Graze Anatomy article about slow feeders aka N.A.G Bags, was part of a local online column aptly titled "Mirror, Mirror In the Stall" - because really, what horse doesn't hold up a giant mirror and show us how we're being, whether we like it or not? It was based on our first reactions to trying this feeding method in 2012.
Horses are, in general, mild mannered creatures. Wild or feral equines spend the majority of their time grazing and roaming the land at a sedated pace, dozing in fits and starts. As prey animals, they are prone to short bursts of speed, and wild play - running, bucking, kicking.
Many domesticated horses around the Cariboo live relatively similar lives to that of the wild horse, spending their days turned out on acres of sprawling ranchland. Some, however, dwell in paddocks, or even in stalls, making it necessary to feed hay all year long and giving little opportunity for extraneous, spontaneous exercise. My horses fall into the latter category and, while not overtly miserable, they do tend to get bored. And they always seem hungry, no matter how round their bellies get. Sometimes little things just don’t seem quite right with them. Of course they would much prefer to be out on pasture, running somewhat wild and free, but as that isn’t necessarily possible, we try to find ways to make theirs a little closer to a ‘natural’ horse life.
Finicky and complex, the equine body houses the digestive system of 'trickle feeders', or grazers. They require small amounts of food almost continuously, but like children given large bowls of candy, most gorge themselves on the piles of hay put before them at feeding time, and then spend long hours with nothing to nibble on but the fence rails and each other. Bad habits develop as they grow restless and irritable toward their paddock mates.
A solution for dealing with the feeding issue has become increasingly popular of late- slow feeding. This method is a simulation of natural grazing that can be managed in stalls or paddocks and can be carried out using variety of different feeders with the same basic theory. Place hay inside of a devise that will allow horses only small bites, causing them to slow down the rate of consumption and make the same amount of feed last much longer. This allows their digestive system to work continuously rather than to work extra hard around meals and then stopping for hours at a time. According to studies, slow feeding helps regulate weight and metabolic issues, stabilize moods, decrease bad habits and give horses an increased sense of wellness. In farm settings they are also useful for winter feeding, cutting down on hay waste when feeding free choice. Many veterinarians are recommending slow feeding, and the method is being practiced around the world. The costs associated with slow feeding ranges from minimal to quite high, depending on the type of feeder one uses, and if they are homemade or store bought.
I recently purchased five N.A.G. Bags (Natural Alternative Grazer Bags) in two different sizes, and watched the results play out. My horses seem to thoroughly enjoy them, using them not only to eat out of but to play with as well. One of my gelding, cheeky boy that he is, started playing keep away with one of the mares, making it necessary to tie the smaller bags to fence posts just to keep him from tossing them into the neighbouring paddock. The only problem we ran into was giving free choice hay, even in the slow feeders, to our two 'easy keepers'. They still managed to overeat, leading me to believe that they're not only easy keepers, but ahead of the learning curve as well. At this point we're feeding twice a day, using the N.A.G. Bags to quadruple the length of time the hay lasts. While its still too early to tell how the horses weight will be affected, the slow feeders have definitely proven beneficial for the horses digestive systems, clearing up a particularly nasty bout of the runs in a mare with chronic digestive issues. At the end of the day slow feeding seems a very worthwhile endeavour for my paddock dwellers, giving them just a little more 'natural' of a life.
Fast forward a few years and while a lot of changes to their lifestyle, we still have all of our horses on the 24/7 access to hay in slow feeders method during the winter.
Our horses now have access to a fairly large pasture, allowing for a few months of fresh mixed grasses and weeds aka wild pasture, with enough left over to paw for in the late fall/early winter. They have space to run, space to wander, space to move. Though they tend to stick pretty close to the round bale and the waterer in the winter!
What we've found is that in terms of hay waste, these bags are phenomenal. There is almost no waste at all, which cuts down on cost drastically. We've also found it at least doubles, and in some cases, quadruples, the length of time hay lasts.
Over the years we've used many types of slow feeder hay bag, and it doesn't seem to matter what brand we choose, none of them hold up to our horses teeth and the varying weather. Thank God for binder twine! Some of our original bags were stitched together to the point that we had to retire them, which wasn't a huge loss as we haven't used square bales in years. We always tell people who are interested in using these bags that they are not a one time investment, they will need to be replaced, but it's more than worth it.
On the other side of the coin, some of our horses have never self-regulated to the point that they maintain a healthy weight. In fact a couple of them are down right chubby. This led us into the interesting new world of hay testing. They are so large despite doing all the 'right' things, We assumed that we must have high protein, high sugar hay. But we don't. However it was an interesting experiment that we repeat yearly.
So while we are huge fans of slow feeders and firmly believe that it is the best way to go for horse health, for ease, and for cost efficiency, they did not turn out to be the solution to all of our concerns and issues.