A couple of days ago Rebecca2 asked me....
"Have you solved messy Gabe's problem? I just read a blog where they had put a "hay net" over a big bale of hay and the horses had to eat through the holes. The lady made the comment that they had to eat slower, more like grazing, and they didn't leave hay strewn all around."
The bars I put across the top of the manger were meant to do just these things. While certainly not as effective as nets, the bars have made it much more difficult for Gabe to pull large amounts of hay out of the manger where he can trample it. I also stripped everything down to the rubber mats and the combination has helped a great deal. The new feeding arrangement has not slowed down their consumption, but it has eliminated the waste factor. Doing away with the bedding has helped as well. Gabe doesn't like going to the bathroom on the bare mats and is now choosing to go outside much more often. I went from no barn cleaning with Emma and Tessa to 4 huge muck buckets a day when Gabe showed up and now, I'm down to one bucket a day. Much more manageable and healthier as well, since the barn is less dusty and stays cleaner.
I have thought about trying the slow-feeder hay nets, but I have a few reservations. Mainly, I worry that my very young herd may decide to chew on the nets. Tessa is going to be turning 4 next month and the rest of her adult teeth will be coming in throughout the coming year. Every time a new tooth comes in, she gets a bit cranky and starts gnawing on anything she can reach. Emma is so young that she still has ALL of her baby teeth. I also worry that her tiny feet could get caught in a net. There are other slow-feeding options but the expense and inconvenience make me hesitate.
The main reason I haven't pursued the slow feeders though, is that I don't see the need for it at this time. I am fortunate this year to be able to feed hay grown on my friend's farm which we cut and baled ourselves. It is good quality, native grasses that were cut in July. This is generally considered to be late cut hay, but I think it is ideal horse feed. Earlier cut hay is higher in nutrient and protein levels, but that is not really good for horses. If the hay were earlier cut, I would have to severely limit the amount they are allowed to eat or they would become too fat and laminitis would be a real fear. With later cut hay, I can feed them as much as they want to eat with no health risks and a great many benefits. I can do this because the feed is not as rich and it is somewhat coarser, hence they eat it slower naturally. Putting this hay in nets would be somewhat self-defeating. The way I feed virtually eliminates the risk of ulcers, greatly reduces the chance of colic and laminitis, and helps them keep warm. Perhaps most importantly, it ensures that they are happy, content and stay out of trouble because they always have something to nibble on.
I do think the slow feeders are an excellent idea for anybody whose animals are on limited rations, is feeding early cut hay or ANY hay that was grown from commercial seed rather than native grasses. All of the commercial seed produced now has been selectively bred and/or genetically modified to produce higher protein and nutrient values. It has been "optimized" to get the most out of every acre. While this seems like a good thing, it has been terribly detrimental to horses and is the number one cause of the meteoric rise in the incidence of laminits and founder among US horses. These grasses were developed with dairy and beef cattle in mind. Dairy cattle now produce so much milk that they are physically incapable of eating enough to sustain themselves while lactating. Increasing the nutrients that they get from every bite is the only way to sustain them. The more calories a beef cow consumes per bite, the faster and bigger he grows. This need to optimize every bite drives the seed industry which drives the hay industry and is ruining a lot of horses.
I may opt for a slow feeder system as my herd matures or if my hay changes significantly. Tessa is turning into an especially easy keeper and I cannot exercise her as she should be. Emma needs quite a lot of extra food right now and in the coming months, but later, I can foresee the need to limit her feed intake. Next year, I may be puzzling out how to build a slow feeder, but for now I am just glad that I have stopped Gabe from wasting the hay and trashing the barn.