Horses are designed to eat constantly. When they don’t have forage (hay, grass and browse) in front of them at all times, they suffer from stress, stomach ulcers and social issues like resource guarding. Most of us don’t keep our horses on acreage that can satisfy our equines’ need to chew, and if we simply toss them their flakes of hay (up to 15 pounds a day!) they eat quickly and then stand around, or get into trouble. So we come up with management solutions, like putting the hay in nets, which slows down the rate of consumption.
Each paddock at Tonk’s barn has two hay nets, one for each horse. Some horses eat together and then move on to the second net, but most stake out their own net and nibble until done. The nets have fairly large holes, and some of the horses have figured out how to rip them open to even larger ones, so the horses spend some of the day without anything to eat. This isn’t for very long (this wonderful barn feeds hay 5 times a day) but Tonka is a slow eater, and his paddock mate was eating her hay right up and then eating his (he let her, he defers to mares.) With the permission of the stable owner, I installed very sturdy, small-mesh nets.
The horses have to work hard to pull the strands of hay out of the 1-inch holes. This mimics the slow grazing that a horse would do in a sparse rangeland better than chowing down on a pile of loose hay. With these nets installed, Maggie stayed busy and didn’t bother Tonka. This is exactly what I wanted to have happen.
Tonka, however, had other ideas. He’s a calm horse, but far from dull. He’s a thinker. He figured out a way to get to the hay faster.
After the nets are filled, he eats the leafy bits that fall to the ground.
Once those easy pickings are scarfed up, he tosses the hay net over the top of the hoop.
Then he brings it back again.
This fluffs up the hay so that he can reach in and eat.
When there’s so little hay left in the net that fluffing doesn’t work, my horse has one more trick. Eating the last of the hay out of a swinging net takes effort. From my perspective, that’s the point. It’s supposed to take time and keep him busy. Tonka, however, has another idea. He throws the net back over the hoop, where it doesn’t budge, and now the hay is easy to pull out.
Tonka does like a full mouthful of hay to chew on.
There are thirteen hay nets at this barn. Thirteen horses. Only one horse – Tonka – has figured out how to manipulate the nets. Partly, it’s in Tonka’s nature to do this, but I also think it’s his training. Tonka works for rewards, not away from punishment. Many compliant horses are shut down, afraid to move without a direct order. I like Tonka to problem-solve and I structure the training so that he comes up with a (usually) mutually agreeable solution. This makes for a cooperative partner. It means that on the trail he figures out the safest route through a water crossing (he’s better at navigating streams than I am.) It means that under saddle in the ring he is confident that if he pays attention to my movements, and if he does something in response, that something good will happen. My horse is rewarded for being engaged with me and with the world, so, when faced with a slow-feed hay net, Tonk doesn’t just accept the situation, rather he sees this as one more challenging puzzle to solve.
Tonk also knows that whatever the two of us are going to be doing will be interesting and rewarding. Even when his net still has hay in it, I get this greeting at the gate.
This is the attitude of an enthusiatic partner. If it means that I also have a horse that thinks through how to manipulate a slow-feeder to his liking, that’s fine with me!
**Updated Note** As clever as Tonka was about this, ultimately, it caused health problems – he stressed his neck and back reaching up and in. I now feed Tonka on the ground, and he’s boarded at a place with grass in the paddock, which keeps his neck and back in a more natural position.
Oh my gosh, this is hilarious. To me, this falls under the heading “if they work that hard to break the rules….let them, they’ve earned it!” That Tonka is too adorable…and smart.
You’ve heard me mention a very small Shetland/Chincoteague pony I bought at auction for $3 and brought home in the back of a station wagon and that lived to be 32. Boo Boo measured 9 hands if he inhaled hard and stood on his tippy toes. Although quite mischevious, Boo Boo was actually very polite and well mannered and did not demonstrate many of the defensive behaviors many very small, usually poorly trained ponies did. I like to think I had something to do with that, as I always treated Boo Boo like a very small horse, not a pocket pet, and handled him very gently and predictably. I think ponies often are inadvertently manhandled a bit, and I avoided this with Boo Boo. Although he was ridden by a child, this was never without supervision and she was a brilliant little rider despite her disability of muscular dystrophy.
One of the biggest challenges in managing Boo Boo was keeping his weight down. I could not let him graze in my pasture for more than an hour a day as he would balloon up. He received exactly half a handful of grain per day, just so he could be fed along with the other horses. Boo Boo LOVED oats and would do anything to increase his ration. We had a terrible problem of him getting out of his stall at night and when we threw back the barn doors every morning, there would be Boo Boo, relaxing in the aisle, blinking and yawning in the morning light. We tried several latches, and it didn’t even slow him down. My barn manager finally caught him and incredulous, told me what the little devil was up to. She said that as soon as the lights were snapped off and doors closed, he would rear he up onto his hind legs, and rest one front hoof on his water bucket. (Only 9 hands, remember?). Then, he’d use his tongue (!) to undo the slide latch on his stall door. Once he’d pushed his door open, he’d walk up and down the aisle nickering to each horse in turn. Many would still be eating their grain, and when they heard him nickering, some would swing their heads over their stall door to greet him, still chewing, and invariably some of their grain would fall from their mouths to the aisle floor, where Boo Boo would painstakingly Hoover up every kernel. Then on to the next horse. The barn manager spied on him doing this exact behavior 3 nights in a row. She told me, shaking her head and laughing, that it was the first documented case of ‘equine organized crime’ she’d ever witnessed.
We never had the heart to stop him, and just kept the aisle completely clear of tools, trunks, etc. from then on.
There is a book in you. I hope that you write it.
Hi Terry. I dried my tears from Hen Blog and came on over to begin this new adventure with you. Horses are amazing animals if people would just stop and watch with a careful eye. My mare was a prankster. She was truly miss personality but when it came time to work she was all business. Tonka has some of her spunk. I want to thank you and your family for all the time and effort you put into Hen Cam. It was a wonderful blog. I feel this blog will be just as great. Onward to this chapter of your writing.
Welcome! I had a mare like that. When she was on, she was truly on. She loved to be the center of attention. Great in the show ring, difficult on a slow day at the barn 🙂
Tonka sure is one clever horse. I look forward to reading more about him at this new blog but I will miss HenCam, the goat boys, Lily, Scooter and Phoebe. Maybe (hint hint) you could just drop in some comments occasionally on how they’re all going, in between telling us of Tonka’s exploits.
My other animals will surely have walk-on roles in this drama 🙂
Terry…I just read your goodbye on Henblog…sorry to see that go. But excited to start reading your horse blog. I love my chickens, but I LOVE horses!!! So I followed your link, and what’s the first story I read, but about slow feeder hay nets! I’ve had my horse on lay-up for almost six months now, and he is quite bored in his stall. He hoovers up his hay as fast as possible, and due to the lay-up he’s FAT, so he’s also on a diet. So with him, a little bit of hay does not go a long way. Just in the past few days, I started looking for a slow feed hay net, but wasn’t sure which one to go with. I bought a slow feed hay bag, but it’s not quite what I was looking for. Searching through the offerings on Amazon, I couldn’t figure out which one would work best for me. The recommendation of a friend, or other knowledgeable person is what I was looking for, and there you are!!! As usual, your information is timely and useful! As with the Henblog, I will absolutely be a regular!! Oh, and it’s good to know my horse uses his brain like Tonka..in 2 days, he figured out that tossing the bag around will drop the tasty goodies to the ground!
Lay-up is so hard on horses. Depending on the ailment, there are various silly behaviors to teach him, and enrichment toys, to keep him (and you) from going bonkers.
Unfortunately, I’ve had to be his enrichment toy, as he doesn’t seem to like inanimate objects! I’ve tried various things, but he’s more interested in me than toys. I spend time brushing him, walking him as his injury permits, and just hanging out with him. He has learned to do stretching exercises with (tiny) horse cookies too. I do have the luxury of having him in my backyard, so thankfully I can hang out with him often! So glad you’ll be imparting your horse wisdom on a regular basis. One can never get enough of that!
Tonka is also uninterested in most toys. He did, however, figure out how to unplug the fan (we’ve changed his stall guard so he can no longer do this.) Sounds like your guy likes interaction and puzzles, too. Lucky him to have you there for company.
Terry: This was great. Tonk is a very happy and beautiful horse. As I reach retirement age, your new commitment inspired me to start thinking about getting a horse again. I live in rural North Carolina and there are several horse boarding facilities within 15 minutes of my house. I am thinking it is something my granddaughter and I can enjoy together. I really enjoyed reading about the chickens but it was something I would never endeavor to undertake. However, a horse, that is a whole different story. So looking forward to these new adventures we all get to share with you.
Horse are a whole ‘nother story, aren’t they? 🙂 What a lovely thought, to share a horse with your granddaughter.
Like someone else said, I dried my tears at the end of hencam and came over here to see what you are up to. Tonka is one clever boy! I am sure it is your wonderful interaction with him that has made him such a resourceful guy. Wonderful post.
I love this post! I found it in another post of yours about horses using tools.
My horse just keeps biting holes in her net so I got her message and got back to using a normal haynet. After 9 months or so. She seems to frustrated to learn to eat from the slowfeeder. Or maybe she just refuses to learn (because she knows she can teach me things?). By the way, of course she never have to eat from her slowfeeder hungry as she is in the pasture with free hay (or grass depending on the season).
Thanks, Sandra. I follow your blog (excellent!) so happy to have you comment here! The mare that Tonka shares his paddock with has the same hay net as he does. She rips holes in hers. Maybe it’s a mare thing? I’ve also noticed that some horses are sensitive to the texture of the slow feed nets. I consult with the owner of 3 horses, and hers prefer a specific brand that has softer rope.