Sometimes, it seems like a prerequisite of being a “horse person” is having strong opinions and one of the things many people have a strong opinion about is the use of hay nets.
Opinions range from very positive to very negative on hay net use, depending on who you ask. Should you be using a hay net? The answer is, as with many things horse-related, “it depends”.
Hay nets have been around for a long time and were originally designed to keep hay up off the ground to reduce waste. Traditionally, hay nets had very large openings that did not restrict the horse’s rate of intake. More recently, slow-feed hay nets with openings as small as 1.25” have become popular. These serve to reduce waste but also slow down the horse’s rate of hay intake.
Slowing down how quickly a horse consumes its hay is a great advantage when there is a necessity to limit hay. The horse’s digestive system was designed for continuous grazing and as a result, the horse’s stomach secretes acid continuously. Slowing down hay intake more closely mimics natural grazing behavior and prevents the horse from having an empty stomach for long periods of time. Spending long periods of time without forage increases ulcer risk. Stretching out the time it takes for a horse to eat its hay also keeps it busy for longer periods of time and horses that are busy eating are less likely to find other troublesome ways to occupy themselves.
Hay nets aren’t just for the easy-keeper. I have observed multiple harder-keeping, picky eaters who will eat more hay out of a net than they will off the ground. For these horses, we would choose a net with a moderate-sized hole - not the super tiny holes that we use for the fast eaters.
A couple years ago, there was a trend of making large slow feeders for pasture use out of varying materials. People quickly learned that metal grates and the like may slow down how quickly a horse ate but there were also reports of excessive wear on the front teeth due to these types of materials. Large hay nets designed for whole square bales or to put over a round bale are available. These avoid excess wear on teeth but care should be taken that shod horses don’t have an opportunity to catch a shoe on the netting.
Hay nets, slow or regular, need to be hung at a height where a horse will not catch a shoe or leg when rolling. It is important to think about how far the hay net hangs down when both full and empty.
Many of the negative opinions of hay nets are related to the fact that the horse is not eating in a natural grazing position. This concern does have merit; particularly for horses with cervical arthritis or issues in the poll or back. There are slow feeders that are designed to allow for a more natural grazing position and they are considerably more expensive or require some DIY skill.
Do the upsides of using a hay net offset the downsides? That is something you will have to evaluate for your individual horse.