As I’ve posted before, I have horses: 4 full-sized fuzzbutts and one mini fuzzbutt. Horses are designed to eat almost constantly; unlike humans, who only produce stomach acid when we eat, horses produce acid constantly. If the stomach acid doesn’t have any food in the stomach to digest, it will essentially start digesting the lining of the stomach, resulting in ulcers and other stomach problems. In the summer, putting a horse out on pasture is the perfect solution – the horse will graze all day like it’s supposed to. But in the winter, when hay has to be fed, how does a horse owner make sure that the horse a) gets enough hay for his needs, b) doesn’t get too much and get fat, and c) spreads his eating over several hours, rather than minutes?
A popular solution is the use of small-mesh hay nets; the nets have small holes, and it takes longer for the horse to pull hay through those small holes. So the horse can’t just take mouthfuls at a time, which reduces waste, too. For several years, I’ve used small-mesh nets to feed my guys.
I bought bulk hockey goal netting online and attached it to the gates on the front of my stalls in their shelter. I only have to slip the hay through the rungs of the gate, and it falls in the net. It’s honestly been the perfect solution for these guys. I have zero waste (really. zero.) and it takes them almost a full 24 hours to get through their hay ration.
However, now that I have Piper (the aforementioned mini fuzzbutt), this solution won’t work. The openings in the mesh I use can stretch to 3″, and that’s just large enough for Piper to get a foot stuck if she paws at the net. She’s still young and rambunctious, and already has a tendency to paw, so this is too much of a risk. I’ve been wanting to try something new, anyway, so here’s my chance!
How much hay does a horse need?
The general rule of thumb is that a horse should consume 1-2% of their healthy body weight in forage (grass and/or hay) every day, along with a vitamin/mineral supplement and added calories if needed. My herd is a mixed bag, with varying individual needs. Here is their breakdown:
- Girls paddock:
- Faith, Thoroughbred, tends to be underweight: 1000lb -> 2%+ -> 20lb minimum (usually give free choice)
- Roxie, Appaloosa, easy keeper: 1000lb -> 2% -> 20lb
- Piper, mini, gets fat on air: 250lb -> 1-1.5% -> 3-4lb
- This is the problem… will explain later
- Boys paddock:
- Billy, Arabian, total fatass: 800lb -> 1.5% -> 12 lb
- Jake, quarter horse, easy keeper: 900lb -> 1.5% -> 14lb
In previous winters, I’ve given the girls free-choice hay because Faith needs it and Roxie doesn’t tend to stuff herself. It works. The boys get roughly 25-30lb to share – more on really cold nights. Billy inevitably gains some weight over the winter, but Jake always stays pretty fit. They all get a vitamin/mineral supplement to round out their ration, and Faith gets extra calories.
So the boys are easy; they get along really well, so they share one net of hay on their side of the barn. The girls, however, don’t share so easily, so they get their own nets. The problem this year will be Piper. She can eat just as quickly as the big kids, but she only needs a fifth of the hay the big girls need. If I were to let her share the free-choice hay the big girls get, she would be absolutely obese by spring. I could split her off into her own paddock, but that’s not really fair to her; horses are herd animals, and I wouldn’t feel right putting her by herself without the herd interaction she’s used to. The problem becomes: how do I give the big girls free choice hay, restrict Piper’s hay, and keep them all from getting into each other’s rations, while keeping them all together? Now that sounds like an excellent problem for this engineer to solve. 😉
I decided to take advantage of the height difference between the big girls and Piper. Faith and Roxie can easily reach over a bar that Piper could easily walk under – that’s how pronounced the difference is.
For the big girls, I designed a box with sides high enough that Piper can’t reach over – 30 inches. I found some nice pallets at work to use as the base and went with the sizes I found: 24×30 and 24×31. I made the boxes 24 inches tall, and with the 5″ pallets on the inside raising the hay up, the hay is only 18 inches from the upper lip of the box – high enough so they won’t have to eat with their heads in boxes all day, but not high enough for them to flip hay out. I put the boxes on legs (made of 2×4’s) to get them out of Piper’s reach and secured them to a stall wall to keep them from tipping if they get bumped into.
I bought more bulk netting online (here) and attached it inside the box. It unsnaps on one side so I can just toss the hay in and snap it back into place over the top.
They will still have to eat through the net, slowing them down like usual. Then I attached old polo wraps (that I’ve had for years but never used) to the top edges so they can’t get a splinter.
An advantage of these boxes over the gate net is that they will be eating in a more natural grazing position – they got close with the gate net, but this is better.
Faith checking out the new boxes
I couldn’t leave the boys out, so I made them an 18×48″ box that will hold a full bale of hay that they can share.
The boys’ box. The green hook-over buckets are for salt; right after this photo was taken, the box was moved out from under them.
So now the big girls’ hay is out of Piper’s reach… How do I feed her where the big girls can’t get to it?
My barn is a 24ft x 36ft glorified run-in with a large overhang, enclosed on three sides from the wind. I have three open-front stalls along the back wall of the barn. They have solid four-foot walls separating them. Two are open, and one is closed off with a gate.
The “storage stall” is just like the other two stalls along the back of the barn – it just has a gate on it. I keep a few things in there and use it for fuzzbutts that need enclosed because of injury, illness, etc. I decided to use that first stall for Piper. I removed the gate, organized the stuff I store in there along one side, gated that off, and put a bar across the stall opening at a height that Piper can just barely walk under (36″). The bar is right at chest height for the big girls, and they won’t mess with it; the boys definitely would, but the girls are pretty much saints (hallelujah).
I feed Piper her hay in a small mesh hay net as well, but this net has smaller holes than the big kids’ – 1 inch across. This size is ideal for minis and fast-eaters, and she is both. Hay nets are notorious for being infuriating to load with hay. It’s hard to keep them open and wrangle the hay in by yourself, so I built a PVC frame for the net so I can just drop her hay in; she’s too short to reach over the frame and get at the hay (sorry, kid). I thought about making her her own hay box, but since she paws, I didn’t want to risk her getting caught up in the empty net if she gets frustrated when she runs out of hay.
I’m hoping her hay will last until at least mid-morning. She will likely spend the rest of her day after she runs out foraging around the big girls’ boxes for dropped hay. I hung the net far enough in the stall that the big girls won’t be tempted to reach over the bar to get to it, but not far enough so that she feels isolated back in the corner.
So far, so good. We will see how they all work out over the winter!
I’ve been using these boxes for three weeks now, and I had to make a change. Piper got really good at hooking her nose over the edge and tipping the boxes over, even when I had them tied to the wall! Smart little shit! So I found a couple more pallets at work and screwed them to the bottom of the boxes’ legs. This makes them about 5 inches taller and makes them harder to tip over.