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The use of hay nets and their effect on the whole horse. 

Fiona Pim, 18.2.19

There are various of reasons why owners choose to use hay nets to support the health and management of their horse. Here are some of them that you may be familiar with:


1. It creates less mess and therefore cuts down on wastage and considering this year’s hay has been at a premium this makes good economical sense. 


2. It slows down a horse that is ‘greedy’ and therefore helps to maintain their weight. 


3. It helps to wear their front teeth to mimic the natural wear in nature.


4. By using a hay net I can measure how much my horse is eating. 


So with all these good reasons lets now look at it from the horse’s point of view. 


For the horse, eating is an incredibly important time for them. It is what they spend most of the day doing! So it probably makes sense that if they spend most of the day enjoying what they are doing, they are going to be happier horses. The quality of the hay is an important consideration when feeding your horse. It is also a time for relaxation, for the digestive system to work effectively to extract the right nutrients to keep your horse healthy. 


The postural position of the horse is important when choosing how to feed hay to your horse. A relaxed horse in the head down position allows the thoracic spine to open up and elevate the ribcage giving the organs of digestion the room they need to work effectively. The head low position allows the lower jaw (the mandible) to slide forward opening up the space between the mandible and the first cervical vertebrae where the important parotid gland sits that secretes saliva and starts the digestive process. 


Neck Trauma

Haynets by design need to be hung and therefore go against the best postural position for eating. 

It can create frustration for the horse, resulting in aggressive pulling of the hay often through very small holes causing a repetitive whiplash effect putting their cervical spine at risk. Most of the time they are not on the ground and often the horse has to angle their head in an unnatural posture to grab at the hay over several hours. Often the hay net is placed in the same position especially in a stable so the horse is always grabbing the hay in one direction only. Frustration and negative repetitive forces to the neck not only causes physical trauma but can lead to postural problems, alignments issues and a level of sustained stress resulting in behavioural issues, gut problems and weight gain. 


I have also observed horses that are very calm when eating from a hay net - the holes in the hay net are large and placed close to the ground. As an owner many of us have forgotten what a calm horse presents as, so always good to observe your own horse and their particular circumstances.


If a horse has difficulty eating hay off the ground or tilts their head or prefers to eat hay at shoulder height I would be looking to the Poll and TMJ for pain and restricted movement. Try eating with your head extended and see how relaxed and effective you are! 


Horses will extend their head for short periods while foraging, for example reaching up to overhanging branches to pick some leaves for a few minutes at a time. Some owners have tried to mimic this natural behaviour by suspending a hay net in the trees with large holes and this has been shown to be helpful with their posture, strength and stretching of the back muscles. However this is to mimic natural behaviour and enjoyment for the horse with access to plenty of hay on the ground. 
















The overweight horse. 

The over weight horse seems to be more common these days and owners are desperately trying to find all sorts of ways to help their horse lose weight. One of the more common recommendations today is the use of slow feeders and small holed haynets, to slow down their eating while at the same time allowing a trickle of hay to reach their stomach and protect it from the  continuous production of acid. 


Whenever I see an over weight horse my question is why is he overweight? Why are horses so out of balance that they are not able to regulate their own intake of food and we have to manage this for them. An overweight horse usually has an insatiable appetite, in other words he feels the need to constantly eat so restricting his intake is going to cause him a lot of stress which produces the hormone cortisol which results in weight gain.  Observing the food obsessed horse is never a calm picture. A horse in balance both mind and body will not over eat and will seek out those plants they need in a purposeful and calm manner. Overeating is a symptom that something else is going on with your horse and restricting forage will make the problem worse. 


Are high cortisol levels stopping your horse from losing weight? 


In response to a stressful event the adrenal glands produce the hormone Cortisol (the fight or flight hormone) being chased by a mountain lion would be a good example. Levels of "the stress hormone," cortisol, rise during tension-filled times.

In normal circumstances the danger would be over in a matter of minutes and the cortisol levels would return to normal. However if a horse doesn’t get that relief through prolonged stress and cortisol levels continue to be elevated over a sustained period of time, blood glucose levels rise which causes higher insulin levels, the blood sugar drops and the horse craves food again. This can result in a range of symptoms from behavioural, gut issues and weight gain, the body stores this elevated blood glucose as fat as a protective mechanism, the very thing we are trying to prevent. 

So if you have an overweight horse causing him more stress with a hay net is not helping him to lose weight. I would look to your horse’s happiness. 


Are your horse’s 4 basic needs being met?  

  • Herd (the company of other horses), 

  • Hay ( unlimited grasses), 

  • Herbs (self selection) &

  • Horsing Around (freedom to move and having fun)! 


……this is before we ask them to ride. 


A calm happy horse will balance its movement with their food intake. 


The horse has nutritional requirements that must be met in order to maintain health. If the hay is of poor nutritional value then the horse must eat more in order for his nutritional requirements to be met and maintain optimum health.  This is where hay analysis and advice on supplements and gut health can be beneficial to supplement the hay to help the horse from overeating. 



Do hay nets help to mimic natural wear of the Incisor Teeth? 

There has been much talk recently about the importance of the Incisors - the front teeth of the horse. Not only do they have an important role in influencing the position of the TMJ but they are also designed to wear at the same rate as the molars at the back of the mouth. Fortunately many owners are starting to question this fact as often the incisors are not addressed at your six monthly or yearly dental check up. The incisors should remain the same length and angle as a five year old horse and properly functioning incisors are vital to the health of the Temporo-mandibluar Joint which plays a key role in Proprioception and Posture. 












The problem is that domestic horses on hay and/or  grass do not wear their incisors effectively and the use of hay nets has been discussed as a way to help. 


In practice however my observation is that  the use of hay nets or crates, is causing repetitive trauma to the protective enamel surface of the tooth and predominantly on the central incisors. 


This is resulting in abnormal wear to the protective enamel surface (something that wouldn’t happen in nature) and an inverted angle to the tooth surface which is an important consideration in occlusal balance. So while the hay nets do seem to wear the teeth it is more of a traumatic abrasion on selective teeth rather than a functional one to benefit the horse. 

In summary, use caution when feeding hay out of hay nets. If you do decide to use a haynet, observe your horse, make sure the holes are large, they have the choice to eat off the ground and they are relaxed and happy. 

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It is also frustrating when you walk in to their stable in the morning and the hay is everywhere except in the horse! Corner feeders are great for this as it solves the head down position and contains the hay.   

If your horse has a run in shelter I advise several large wooden apple boxes and if your horse is out 24/7 I have seen haybells work well and also wooden boxes with a roof.  

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