Earlier this year I posted a short video making a comparison of a horse eating from a hay net and then eating hay from the floor (See below). The inspiration for making this video was to create awareness of the musculoskeletal impact this may have.
In all honesty I was taken aback by the huge response which eventually went viral with messages and comments coming from all over the world. The debate amongst horse owners on the subject was impressive which you can see on my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/animalspine/.
The natural instinct of the horse is to graze from the ground and I hope I don’t need to produce a research article to prove this! Yes, they will browse at different heights in trees and bushes but predominately at ground level. So why do we put up a hay net and expect them to eat like that for prolonged periods like it’s natural? Below are a few areas to consider when deciding how to feed.
RATE OF CONSUMPTION
The idea that hay nets slow down the rate of consumption is inconclusive. There is conflicting research on the subject out there. I guess we as horse owners could conduct our own research project in our own yards, timing our own horses eating with a hay net and without to make our own conclusions - I think you’d be surprised.
TEETH AND JAW
The alignment of the jaw and teeth which are influenced by the position of the head and neck. When the head is in a natural grazing position the jaw aligns itself correctly to properly grind down forage. Natural jaw movement is compromised when eating in an upward position which effects the way the teeth wear and the function of the surrounding anatomy, saliva production and therefore digestion - why not quiz your equine dental technician?
The respiratory system is able to drain effectively when the head is positioned towards the ground. The amount of dust in the air from being pulled from a hay net presents a risk of breathing in dust particles and causing irritation as well as getting dust in the eyes.
If you watch your horse eating from a net they tend to consistently tilt the head from side to side, pulling the neck back and up, hollowing in the back and loosening the core. From a training perspective this is the opposite of what you are aiming for when you ride. Ideally we want to create connection and contact over the topline and engagement of the core to support the weight of a rider. A lower head position when eating will also reduce tension over the topline improving suppleness and relaxation - just think of the beloved carrot stretches!
As an animal musculoskeletal therapist I appreciate there are certain circumstances to why you might need to use a hay net, whether for health reasons, ease of mucking out.....……... The habit of putting up hay nets has become wide spread without much thought of the musculoskeletal impact or considering what is natural for the horse. But you need to ask yourselves.......is there a better way?