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Is the use of automatic hay dispensers and timer-controlled feeding systems ushering in a new era for horse stables? The increasing popularity of automatic hay racks appears to address the complex balance between ensuring constant access to roughage for horses, preventing equine obesity, and minimising the labour involved in hay distribution to maintain stable economics. Essentially, there are two primary systems at play:

1. Traditional hay racks with a modern twist: These racks are designed to close using mechanisms like blinds, wind nets, or other devices, effectively preventing horses from reaching the hay. This category includes commercial solutions and a plethora of DIY guides for those interested in crafting their own setups.

2. Automated feed dispensers reminiscent of those used for concentrated feed: Similar to their concentrated feed counterparts, these dispensers require horses to enter after a chip verification. Once inside, they can access hay for a predetermined duration before the entrance closes, prompting the horse to exit and allowing the next horse to enter. These systems are mainly found in active open yards where the horses are equipped with a chip anyway.

Both manufacturers and stable operators are enthusiastic advocates of these systems, highlighting a range of benefits:

Benefits of automated racks:

● Curbs constant eating: Horses are unable to monopolise the rack indefinitely.

● Encourages increased movement: Horses are motivated to explore their environment in search of food during periods when the rack is closed.

● Regulation of total intake: Closing times can be adjusted to prevent equine obesity issues.

Benefits of hay dispensers:

● Encourages physical activity: Horses remain more active as they can’t simply eat at all hours.

● Tailored portion control: Feeding times can be personalised for each horse, allowing longer access for lean horses and shorter access for those prone to weight gain.

However, when examining these systems’ real-world application in stables, the picture often falls short of the idealistic vision presented in theory.

Let’s delve into the realm of automated hay racks. Many stables that adopt these systems often begin with long open times and shorter closing intervals. For instance, they might leave the hay rack open for 4 hours and then close it for 1 hour, providing horses with a break from continuous eating.

Regrettably, this approach doesn’t account for the substantial variability in horses’ eating speeds, which can escalate significantly, quadrupling under specific circumstances.

Consequently, the unintended outcome of this feeding pattern is that horses tend to gorge themselves after the hour the rack was closed, consuming their meals more rapidly. This ultimately leads them to ingest more hay than if the racks were available for constant access. The underlying logic is rooted in the horse’s uncertainty about the next opening, compelling them to maximise their intake quickly in anticipation of potential scarcity.

Paradoxically, this frequently results in stables altering their management approach, transitioning to a model where the hay rack is open for a mere 1 hour and closed for 4 hours. This adaptation causes horses to consume the same amount of hay in the condensed hour that they would have taken in over 4 hours with an unrestricted (always open) setup. This shift hardly yields any tangible benefits, except that horses are now compelled to eat within a constrained timeframe, subjecting them to pressure and stress. Those who have experienced hurried lunch breaks during work understand the adverse impact such haste can have on digestion, metabolism, and overall well-being.

As a consequence of this approach, where horses often don’t shed weight or may even gain weight, some stables resort to placing reduced quantities of hay in the racks. In this scenario, dominant horses seize the opportunity to feed first, while subordinate equines scramble to consume the remnants just before the feeding period ends. Tensions escalate further when hay racks are outfitted with tightly woven hay nets, adding an extra layer of difficulty for horses attempting to access their food.

Collectively, automated hay racks emerge as an inherently stressful feeding environment for horses, failing to promote their well-being and instead fostering conditions conducive to stomach ulcers, insulin resistance due to stress, and, in the long run, ailments like laminitis and Cushing’s disease.

As an alternative approach, automated hay dispensers emerge, mirroring the concept of automatic concentrate feeders. These systems grant horses individualised access to hay through chip-controlled mechanisms. Owners can determine, via computer settings, the frequency and duration of their horse’s access. Often marketed as “ad libitum hay” feeding, this strategy theoretically permits uninterrupted and continuous access to the machine. However, to prevent horses from monopolising the machine and blocking others, a maximum feeding duration of around half an hour on average is usually enforced before the horse must vacate the dispenser.

The concept of these hay dispensers could potentially function well if each horse had its own dedicated dispenser. In such a scenario, a horse could exit through the back and re-enter through the front, maintaining a smoother feeding experience. However, in reality, multiple horses typically share a single entrance. For illustrative purposes, let’s consider a stable equipped with 4 dispensers catering to 16 horses. This configuration results in 4 horses sharing one dispenser (16 horses divided by 4 dispensers). Let’s also assume that each horse is allotted 30 minutes of machine time for consuming hay before needing to leave. Within 2 hours (4 x 30 minutes), all horses will have cycled through the machine once. Consequently, if your horse initially consumes hay for 30 minutes, it must then wait for approximately 90 minutes as the other horses take their turns.

This calculation operates under the assumption that no horse will attempt to skip its turn. However, in reality, horse owners are well-aware that dominant horses often bypass the queue, returning to the machine after 30 or 60 minutes. This phenomenon elongates the waiting period for subordinate horses. It’s evident that horses under such circumstances cannot eat in a relaxed manner, nor can they chew their food thoroughly. This hastens their eating pace significantly, which usually triggers a further reduction in access time for the faster eaters. Paradoxically, this can result in weight gain rather than weight loss, despite or perhaps due to the presence of the automated hay dispenser.

Consider a scenario where your horse enjoys 30 minutes of hay access within a 2-hour window, followed by a 90-minute break. This sums up to 6 hours of machine access within a 24-hour period. In tranquil circumstances, a horse takes about 45-90 minutes to consume 1 kg of hay, contingent on its body size. For a medium-sized horse (with a weight of 500 kg at a normal weight), let’s approximate 1 hour for 1 kg of hay. This equates to 6 kg of hay consumed within 24 hours. Should a horse eat at a quicker pace, managing 1 kg of hay in 45 minutes, the tally rises to 8 kg in a day. Ordinarily, when healthy horses have unrestricted hay access, they typically consume 2-3% of their body weight in hay. Consequently, a 500 kg horse requires 10-15 kg of hay daily to meet its nutritional needs. Already, it becomes evident that with 6 hours of hay dispenser availability and a standard eating rate, a disparity emerges. For our 500 kg horse, a more fitting allotment would be around 10 hours of hay access to adequately address its requirements.

Considering horses can accelerate their eating pace by a factor of four, they can ingest nearly 4 kg of hay in the same timeframe. Hence, within the 6-hour span of machine availability, my horse could potentially devour 24 kg of hay. To mitigate such overconsumption, numerous automatic hay feeders integrate closely-knit hay nets, constraining the quantity per time unit. This adaptation introduces additional stress for the horse, as it must now hastily extract as much hay as possible from the net within its 30-minute window—likely falling short of its daily sustenance quota.

Collectively, this orchestration ensures that feeding ceases to be a relaxed endeavour (as it naturally should be, triggering the release of endorphins, or “happiness hormones,” during the chewing process). Instead, mealtime becomes synonymous with stress and the pressures of time.

When horses are subjected to eating under time constraints, prompting an acceleration in their feeding speed—an occurrence common in both automatic hay feeders and timed hay bins—several adverse outcomes ensue. Altered chewing patterns and reduced fibre breakdown emerge, culminating in disruptions to peristalsis, large intestine dysbiosis, and compromised digestive efficiency. The constant stress surrounding food consumption contributes to the development of stress-related gastric ulcers and heightened glucocorticoid levels. Over time, these factors can lead to stress-induced insulin resistance, conditions like laminitis, and even Cushing’s disease.

Furthermore, eating holds social significance for horses, mirroring the human experience. It’s a common sight to witness friendly horses congregating at a trough, eating side by side before sharing moments of repose. This natural social dynamic is stifled when horses are relegated to individual feedings at hay dispensers. The limited intervals between feedings leave little room for social interactions, as horses wait in line to re-enter the dispenser for continued nourishment. Overall, this system does not foster the development of healthy and organic group behaviour.

Observing stable life with discerning eyes provides clear evidence of the detrimental impact such automatic systems have on horse health. These experiences underscore the pressing need for alternatives that prioritise equine well-being.

Rather than compelling horses to conform to a “meal-eater” paradigm, akin to humans and dogs, it’s imperative that we enable horses to embrace their innate eating behaviour. Naturally, horses are continuous eaters, embodying their identity as large intestine fermenters. Imposing breaks in their roughage consumption has been scientifically shown to have deleterious effects on both their stomach (leading to stomach ulcers) and their large intestine (culminating in dysbiosis).

The fundamental requirement for equine well-being is consistent access to roughage, a demand that should be met around the clock. Any interruption to this access, not prompted by the horse’s natural motivation, incurs stress.
Moreover, deprivation of roughage, whether due to closed or empty racks, amplifies this stress. In such moments, horses are left uncertain about the prospect of their next meal, inducing anxiety.

In the wild, when a grazing area becomes depleted, a horse instinctively seeks new pastures before securing sustenance and resting. In contrast, our domesticated horses are compelled to linger in a state of food insecurity until access to hay is restored. This unrelenting apprehension over food availability is a significant source of stress, bearing the weight of numerous negative consequences that span the long term.

Rather than relying on sometimes costly systems, we should concentrate our efforts on ensuring the hay quality placed before horses is genuinely suitable. This goes beyond mere absence of mould and spoilage-indicating microorganisms; nutritional values must align as well. For instance, leisure horses should not be fed hay with a sugar content exceeding 10%. Ideally, hay with less than 6% sugar content is optimal. The crude protein content should range from 6% to 9%. Hay with significantly higher protein levels may be suitable for sport horses or those on rigorous diets, but not for ponies prone to weight gain.

Of course, acquiring or producing hay of suitable quality isn’t always straightforward. However, opting for the seemingly facile route of restrictive hay access, whether via dispensers or meal feeding, inevitably leads horses down the path of metabolic imbalances and disease. The imperative is clear: safeguarding equine health requires a commitment to continuous, stress-free access to appropriate roughage.