Trainers Hopeful Automatic Feeders Could Stave Off Colic, Ulcers

by | 10.25.2016 | 2:47pm
The iFeed automatic feeder system set up on the outside of a stall

Racehorses and other equine athletes that expend a lot of energy must consume up to 12 pounds of grain per day to maintain their health and fitness. But nutritionists tell us that feeding a large grain meal to a horse two or three times a day can tax its digestive system in ways nature had not intended.

In nature, equine ancestors nibbled constantly as they grazed across the plains, and the only grains they consumed were seed heads in the grass. But domesticated horses are fed at man's convenience, usually only twice per day. Large, infrequent meals have been shown to increase horses' risk of colic and gastric ulcers.

One California racing stable has decided to change the way it feeds its horses. WEM Racing, with strings at Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita Park, has opted for automatic feeders that dispense a small amount of grain or pellets at programmed times throughout the day and night. Trainer William E. Morey installed automatic feeders at his Golden Gate Fields barn in September.

“I've seen enough research to think that feeding more often in smaller meals is definitely healthier for the horses,” said Morey. “We have four [feeders] up and running, and we're working on expanding a little at a time as we perfect the feeding program for each horse. It's been a learning process, but we're willing to put the time into getting it just right.”

Morey is working with equine nutritionist Dr. Clair Thunes of Summit Equine Nutrition in Sacramento, Calif.

“We have one very big horse, so we've been struggling to feed him as much as he needs to be fed without exposing him to colic risk with a traditional feed program,” Morey said. “We now can give him a more appropriate amount of feed for his size because we can spread it out more.”

Morey programs his automatic feeders to dispense 20 small meals per 24-hour period. Meals are scheduled around training hours and throughout the night, beginning early in the morning before the stable help arrives.

“We're trying to get some food in the horses' stomachs before they go out and train in the morning to prevent stomach ulcers,” Morey said.

A closer look at a complete automatic feeder unit

A closer look at a complete automatic feeder unit

Like cats responding to an electric can opener, most horses learn the whirring of the machine means it is dispensing feed, so Morey programs a break in the middle of the night to allow the horses to sleep undisturbed.

With an automatic feeder dispensing frequent, small meals, the horse doesn't waste feed, and smaller portions enable it to digest the feed more slowly, thereby deriving the maximum nutritional benefit.

How they work

Automatic feeders basically consist of a feed hopper, a programmable timer, a portion control, a funnel to dispense feed into the feed tub, and are powered via a standard A/C electrical source. Some are battery powered; each manufacturer has its own design.

The automatic feeders Morey chose are manufactured by iFeed, based in Snoqualmie, Wash. This feeder holds 23 lbs. of feed and has the capability to dispense up to 720 feedings per 24 hours. It can be mounted on the wall outside the stall, with a hole drilled through the wall for the funnel to dispense feed into the horse's tub. It also can be mounted on the metal bars that make up some stall fronts.

One timer can operate several feeders on the same feeding schedule. If a particular horse is on a feeding schedule different from others in the barn, its feeder must have its own separate timer. Each individual feeder has its own portion control.

The iFeed hopper does not lock, but the consumer can easily install a lock to prevent a loose horse from raiding the hopper, theft of feed, or tampering, said Ulla Dahl, who co-owns iFeed with her husband, Jesper. The iFeed automatic feeder was developed by Jesper's father in Denmark and has been used in Europe for 15 years. A starter kit containing the feeder and everything needed for its operation is $399.

Aside from the health benefits for horses, automatic feeders can benefit one-person stables as an alternative to hiring someone to feed in their absence who may or may not show up or follow feeding instructions.

Automatic feeders also can be used in refeeding a horse that is recuperating from surgery, injury, or illness. These horses need heightened nutrition to repair their bodies, and small, frequent meals are the best way to get them back to health.

  • greg

    This has been an ongoing problem for many years, however without any real options it wasn’t discussed at all, this will help horses digestive health as well as save man hours for stable hands and save money on wasted feed for the trainers, a win/win/win for all

    • iFEED

      We agree that this has been and still is an ongoing problem for horses that spend a lot of time in their stalls. We have supported horses’ digestive health for the past 15 years in Europe. We understand that there is a misconception of automatic slow feeders in the US market but please rest assured that iFEED is a proven product, and we are confident that your horse will love it. You will love the savings. Thank you for your feedback Greg!

  • tony a

    Eating through the night along with the whirring noise will be interesting that while solving one issue will the horse’s get enough rest at night.

    • ziggypop

      ” so Morey programs a break in the middle of the night to allow the horses to sleep undisturbed.”

    • Jocke Muth

      Horses don’t sleep the same way humans do.

    • iFEED

      Hi Tony,
      Great question. Horses don’t have the same sleeping pattern as humans. They rarely sleep more than a few hours. Their stomachs produce acid 24/7. Saliva from chewing helps to buffer that acid so when left without food during the night they can start developing digestive issues. (Or bad habits). The horses quickly adapt to the feeder. They know exactly what time it dispenses food and how many portions. They don’t hang out by the feed bucket or wake up to the whirring sound. Hope this was helpful. Please feel free to contact us if you should have any further concerns/questions.

  • Michael Castellano

    Sounds like a great idea!

    • iFEED

      Thank you for your comment Michael.
      iFEED is fairly new to the US market. However, it has been on the market in Europe with great success for the past 15 years.

  • Rachel

    I think this has lots of merit, though I can see horses getting agitated when they hear a whirring noise from another stall, but not in their own.
    I also strongly believe less antibiotics, lasix, electrolytes, clenbuterol, calcium supplements and all the other crap race horses have to endure will greatly reduce ulcers and colics.

    • iFEED

      Hi Rachel, we appreciate your comments and concerns regarding automatic slow feeders.
      We do, however, know from existing customers that horses from another stall don’t seem to get agitated when they hear the feeder dispensing feed. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any further questions.

  • Henrietta Alexander

    I was taught to train around the feed tub. Cleaning up their breakfast lunch or dinner, or conversely leaving some food is they way horses can communicate if the trainer is willing to listen. I always wanted to know who cleaned up breakfast or who didn’t before training. Generally horses that weren’t “good doers” were fed an extra meal late in the evening.

    • Paisley

      Couldn’t agree more. And what happens when a horse doesn’t clean up? The automatic feeder is going to keep dumping new feed on top of the old. Bad Idea. I don’t like automatic waterers either. I want to know how much my horses drink.

  • ruled off

    it’s about time looking at ulcers in all aspects were given more attention. The Derby is over 150 years old now they say maybe not so much Mylanta.

    • iFEED

      We couldn’t agree more. Horses in the wild rarely have digestive issues. Whether we like to hear it or not….. it is unfortunately a man made problem. The horse’s stomach was not designed to eat 2-3 large meals a day. We have customers that report back that their horses are off their ulcer medication after using the iFEED’er for just 60 days. We don’t claim to cure ulcers and colic but we know for a fact that our feeding system plays an important role in helping prevent these painful disorders.

      • ruled off

        i’m feeling prevent ulcers rather than cure them. most racehorses have tomorthy bales to much on all day.

  • Fred and Joan Booth

    The only problem we see with this idea is that a horses diet should consist of mostly forages. Kind of hard to feed hay with an automated feeder. Also you need to be able to see changes in a horses eating habits to ascertain how their feeling as another person wrote. Additionally what happens when a horse changes barns and their no longer fed automatically? We would worry about such a drastic change in feeding routines.The expense of these feeders is no small matter either, most operations could not afford them in our states racing stables.

    • iFEED

      Hi Fred and Joan. We absolutely agree that a horse’s diet should consist of mostly forages. When grains are needed to sustain a horse’s energy, it becomes a problem when they are fed large meals only 2-3 times a day. A horse that doesn’t clean up could very well have abdominal discomfort (acidic digestive tract) due to the grain overload. iFEED mimics grazing to support a healthy digestive system, and you know how much your horse is fed in weight rather than volume. Each individual feed unit can be switched off so it does’t keep dumping feed if you find that your horse is not eating. We understand your concern of a horse changing barns and going back to feeding only 2-3 times a day when you see the benefits of feeding many small meals consistently. We always offer volume discounts for facilities with multiple horses. iFEED is an investment that has paid for itself in less than a year. Please feel free to contact us if you should have any further concerns/questions.

  • 33horses

    I have a QuickFeed outside every stall in my barn and they dispense a small amount of hay pellets into a bucket inside the stall up to 12X, per 24 hours, depending on the horse. I can feed Timothy pellets or Alfalfa Pellets in differing amounts depending on each horses’ nutritional needs. They also have their hay of course, but this gives them something to digest around the clock. The ones I use are made by Nolan Engineering and they’re very reliable

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