Is Your Horse Too “Fluffy” From Winter?
By Ellie Riley
When the days are short, the footing is frozen, and activity levels are low, many of us are forced to put training and riding our horses, or even their regular turnout schedules, on a winter hiatus until conditions improve. With the sudden decrease in activity and increase in hair coat, it’s often difficult to notice that our four legged friends have packed on some winter pounds as they bury their faces in piles of hay tucked warmly in their stalls.
Now that spring has sprung and the blankets are coming off, you may glance twice at the horses in the pasture and wonder when your farm acquired a herd of broodmares, only to realize that those are not, in fact pregnant mares, but your riding horses! As they gleefully trot up with a mouthful of tender spring grass, you may notice a more cresty neck, no trace of any ribs as that shiny spring coat comes in, and even fatty pockets at the base of their tail. With extra winter weight already, the emergence of grass heavy in carbohydrates, specifically fructans, can wreak havoc on any horse’s digestive and endocrine system, especially those that may already be susceptible to metabolic disorders or founder.
The best thing for horses’ bodies when coming back into work in the spring, is movement and grazing; but what’s a horse owner to do when grazing on lush grass is counterproductive to getting them fitter? There are several options for decreasing the winter “fluff”:
- Grazing muzzles: It hurts our horses and our hearts when we have to watch our favorite mounts look longingly at the pastures from the confines of a dry lot or stall. The grazing muzzle allows the horse to still consume the delicious and tender grass they love, while moving freely about, without overdoing it at the all-you-can-eat buffet of a pasture. Horse’s quickly acclimate to wearing a muzzle for turnout and the safety and reliability of the Deluxe Grazing Muzzle by Best Friend will put your mind at ease, since it has a quick release safety function and is easily fitted for no rubbing.
- Restrict turnout with slow introduction to grass: Fructans, which are the most prevalent type of Carbohydrate in spring grass, are the most concentrated in late afternoon, or after a particularly frosty night. If your horse is overweight or susceptible to metabolic conditions, it’s best to restrict turnout during the late afternoon, and very slowly increase hours on grass after the initial emergence in April/May. If your horse is boarded and you cannot control hours and type of turnout, the grazing muzzle is still the easiest and most effective tool to use.
- Increase activity level: Good for you and your horse after a winter of hibernating inside, a slow and steady increase in exercise will benefit your horse’s mind and body as you both gear up for a season on the trails or the show ring. Long, slow walks, especially on undulating terrain are the safest and best way to start a fitness program before trying to incorporate higher paced aerobic activity or work that requires muscles that haven’t yet been stretched and strengthened. Your horse will look forward to nice rides and you can even time your rides to the parts of the day when the grasses are especially Carbohydrate rich. Your horse won’t know they are missing out, and you will feel safer knowing you are keeping them off the rich grass when it counts.
With as much thought as we give to planning our own health and fitness routines, it’s only fair that we do the same for our horses. Winter weight gain is often easier to stomach than winter weight loss, but both are detrimental to our horses’ well-being. If your horse’s weight is not something you think about often, spring time is the perfect time to ask your veterinarian for his/her recommendations for diet while your horse receives spring vaccinations and a general physical. Your veterinarian will also be able to tell you if your horse is at any particular risk for metabolic disorder or founder. Armed with this information and a plan of action, you can start off the year on a sound, fit, and happy note.