Hay nets, hay racks, hay feeders, hay bags, hay on the ground… it seems like the only thing we can agree on as equestrians is that horses need hay. The science of actually feeding that hay can get pretty complicated and pretty opinionated, pretty quickly! Some horsemen swear by hay nets, but others never really master the art of stuffing the flimsy things. Others prefer a trough feeder or a mat on the ground, saying that horses shouldn’t reach up for hay. And busy boarding stables often swear by hay racks, which allow for quick, efficient feeding by grooms.
Which one is best? The answer, of course, is the one that works for you and your horses.
There’s no doubt that hay on the ground is going to be, at least in part, wasted hay. Most horses seem to enjoy a good snooze in their hay — at least, it seems that way, judging by how thoroughly they mix it into their bedding. Hay fed outdoors in paddocks also gets trampled into the ground or lost to muddy patches, plus there is the worrisome addition of sand intake in certain terrains, which can lead to sand colic.
On the other hand, hay fed on the ground mimics natural grazing patterns. Horses were literally made to eat off the ground, with their heads down. It’s better for them — in particular, for their respiratory systems, which are kept clear by that downward-facing position, and for their nostrils and eyes, which are sensitive to dust and the tiny particulates from hay. You can reduce dirty or muddied hay by using a raised feeder or feeding hay on rubber mats.
Does your horse absolutely have to have his hay kept contained? While hay racks may give the impression of efficiency and cleanliness, there will always be a drift of hay and leaves underneath the rack when it’s been emptied, so the horse will still end up eating off the ground in the end. Hay bags, with a hole in the front, still have to be kept fairly high in order to keep out waving hooves. A well-positioned hay net that is tied top and bottom can be a nice middle-ground between using a hay rack or just using the stall floor, especially for speedy eaters. Hay nets take time to master, but it’s an art well worth learning.
Summing up: horses are best off eating from the ground, but it’s not always possible or the most economical method. Clean hay, fed from chest height or lower, can usually be achieved with feeders or mats. Your horse’s health will thank you!