Recently I was catching up with an old friend a few weeks ago and she was telling me about her daughters mare, who had recently been in hospital with a severe parasitic infection in both eyes.
The infection was caused by your every day black fly, which just goes to show how important it is to check out your horse`s eyes in summer and to provide them with a fly mask. Luckily, the mare pulled through.
The hospital that this horse stayed at for six weeks had a strict “no haynets” policy, due to the high incidence rate of horses being admitted due to haynet related incidents.
When a horse eats from a haynet long stalks of hay are precariously close to their eyes, and if there was a thick, or particularly rigid stalk then they could easily poke themselves in the eye. If some dust or seed was caught then an eye can easily become infected. An alternative problem is that the hay stalk can scratch the eye, which can cause an ulcer, which when left untreated can cause all sorts of problems.
My friend was telling me that the equine hospital feed hay on the floor, which I agree with as it is so much better for the horse`s respiratory system – dust is caught by mucus and gravity pulls it down the nasal passages, away from the lungs – feeding from the ground encourages correct muscular development. As a result, my friend has had a haybar fitted into her mare`s stable, and won`t be using haynets for her other horses. The filly isn`t allowed haynets anyway because she chews at them, unties them and then tries to tie herself up in them!
The hospital also recommends not using haynets when travelling horses. I can see their point – the trailer or lorry is a cramped environment so horses cannot escape any long stalks. Additionally, the movement of the vehicle can sway the haynet close to the horses eyes. Given all this, we should still remember that eating can help keep horses calm when travelling, and when you are travelling multiple horses it can stop bickering in the ranks. Perhaps it is better to use the haybags that are available, or small holed haynets, haylage or hay with soft/short stalks. I always tie my haynets to the front of the trailer, so that Otis has to reach forwards to eat; when it is tied next to his lead rope it is very close to his eyes and he has to twist to snatch a bite, which I think is detrimental to his balance. I would always travel him with hay though, as he gets worried by travelling and I feel eating helps destress him – I back up this theory by the fact that every time he travels with a haynet, eating happily, he arrives dry. When he leaves his hay, he is white with sweat.
I was watching Llani eating from his haynet soon after seeing my friend, and you could really see the jerking, snatching movements he made with his neck as he tugged the long stems out of the net. The next day I put Llani into Otis`s stable, with the haybar, and you could instantly see the more natural position of his eating. He held his neck relaxed, and chewed through the hay in a very calm way. There was no sudden jerking of his neck. I can only gather from this that eating from a pile of hay is much better physiologically for the horses than eating from a haynet, as they are less likely to tweak a muscle by the snatching motion and their eyes are further away from the hay stalks.
I`m not sure on other people`s feelings on haynets, but I think they should be used with discretion and when alternative options are available use them to reduce the risk of injury to the horse.