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As the grass turns greener following the long, wet, muddy winter season, the horses stretch their necks and lips to fetch a few fresh shoots of grass under the fence. Every walk turns into a pulling contest with a stressed owner at one end, and the horse at the other, struggling to withstand the temptation of irresistible fresh spring grass.

As the grazing season approaches, many owners start to worry about digestive and metabolic problems.

Grazing on slowly

In the wild, horses begin to graze as early as February and March. While in winter they live mainly on leaves, bark and the “grass leftovers” of the previous year, the first green stalks emerge in sheltered places at this time and are eaten along with what the winter ground has to offer. Wild horses, for example, graze very slowly from the beginning of the growing season, then have a short phase of lush growth in May / June until the vegetation dries out in summer and only long hay like stalks can be found in August. This then changes back to a diet of leaves, bark, and left-over grass into winter.

Wild horses graze very slowly from the beginning of the growing season, then have a short phase of lush growth in May / June, until the vegetation dries up in summer and in August there is only long hay like stalks to be found, which then changes back to a diet of leaves, bark, and left-over grass into winter.

However, to protect the ground, we usually wait until the beginning or middle of May before the horses are allowed out into the paddock for the first time. By then, the grass is already high and full of nutrients. The high pectin and sugar content in particular is a problem then.

Diarrhoea, laminitis, and colic are often the result. To avoid this, horses should be grazed on slowly from March / April onwards.

You can slowly prepare the metabolism for the pasture either by grazing in hand, by limiting access to marked out grazing areas or by feeding green cuttings. This grazing phase should last between 4 and 8 weeks – depending on the horse’s sensitivity – until the horses can go out to pasture completely.

Stabilisation of the intestinal environment

Even healthy horses often find it difficult to switch from dry hay to lush pasture grass. The high pectin content in the grass, together with the low cellulose content, causes shifts in the intestinal flora and therefore greenish diarrhoea in many horses.

These intestinal flora problems, known as dysbiosis, can be counteracted by feeding herbs with a high bitter and tannin content during the grazing period.

Three horses being re-introduced to summer pasture
Bitter herbs help to simplify grazing. © Adobe Stock/ahavelaar

For this reason, many horses also rely on dandelions during this time – they are a classic bitter plant well known in the practise of naturpathy. Bitter bark is also a favourite snack, so branches and twigs from non-toxic trees and bushes should always be available in the horse’s surrounding.

If pastures are poor in herbs, it is also advisable to include mixtures of herbs with a high bitter and tannin content in the diet and to give them for a period of 6-8 weeks during the grazing on period until the digestive system has adapted to the new diet.

Even if the grass is high and lush, horses need a sufficient cellulose and lignin content so that the intestines can work properly. Therefore, even if the pasture is lush, you should always offer them hay and, if possible, straw (e.g., in nets in the paddock or open stable) or branches to nibble on. They will then leave the pasture at times and prefer to nibble on hay or branches in order to re-establish the right nutrient/fibre ratio for themselves.

Keep an eye on the risk of laminitis, especially at the time of grazing on

If you have a horse with an increased risk of laminitis, you should make sure to reduce its grass intake. This is because it is not only the high levels of pectins contained in spring grass that can trigger laminitis due to incorrect fermentation. The high sugar content is also a risk, e.g., for undiagnosed horses with insulin resistance, of developing laminitis.

If the grass is then dry and short-grazed in midsummer, the content of fructans and endophytes increases, which also leads to an increased risk of laminitis. So regardless of whether the grass is green and lush or dry and short-grazed, the risk of laminitis remains throughout the summer and into the autumn.

As the owner of such a horse, you should make your vet aware in the first place and check the temperature of the hooves every day if possible. It has also proved useful to have a mixture of willow bark and meadowsweet (mixed 1:1 in the herbal pharmacy) or alternatively OKAPI HoofCool forte in the yard’s pharmacy cupboard. If the horse is sensitive or the hooves show a significantly increased temperature compared to the other horses in the group, then not only should you remove the horse from pasture for the time being (and contact your vet), but HoofCool forte should be given immediately according to the manufacturer’s instructions or alternatively a handful of the willow bark/meadowsweet herbal mixture 1-2 times a day.

HoofCool inhibits inflammation, dissolves blood clots and has a capillary-dilating effect, so that in most cases you can see a rapid improvement in symptoms. The herbal mixture also has a clot-dissolving and capillary-dilating effect, so that the development of full-blown laminitis can be counteracted immediately.

Okapi HoofCool forte
OKAPI HoofCool forte inhibits inflammation, dissolves blood clots and dilates capillaries. © OKAPI GmbH

The use of leeches has also proved successful here, as they quickly relieve pressure from the hoof capsule and also have a clot-dissolving effect.

Leeches are used by many veterinary practitioners on the continent, who are usually happy to show horse owners how to use these slippery little helpers. The important thing to remember here is that any sign of laminitis must be taken seriously and, if possible, the vet and hoof trimmer (farrier) should be alerted immediately in order to prevent it becoming chronic or taking a dramatic course.

Regulate feeding speed

If possible, all horses should have access to pasture in summer, because it not only provides valuable nutrients (some of which are lost in the drying process of hay making), but is also invaluable for the horse’s mental wellbeing: horses can move around in their social group all day long, walking and foraging, which is the most natural way for horses to live and nurture.

Just because a horse is prone to obesity or laminitis does not mean that grazing is forbidden for life. It is important to manage the grazing on process of such a horse wisely.

A time limit on access to pasture is not particularly useful because the horse quickly learns to eat a lot of grass in a very short period, so that they ultimately consume just as much as those that stay out longer.

Feeding muzzle offer a very good option to reduce the amount of grass that is being consumed, it therefore allows horses that have a sensitive metabolism to graze for longer periods of time. The ThinLine Grazing muzzle has been rated 9.6 out of 10 It offers an effective way of continue grazing at a reduced intake, and you can attach the muzzle to your own head collar, or we would recommend a ‘grazing safe” head collar that would come undone in case the horse gets caught.

You may have to try out which grazing muzzle works best for your horse, as this depends not only on the terrain of the pasture, but also on the horse’s ability and the needs of the owner or yard manager. The important thing to remember with all grazing muzzles is that they should never be left on the horse 24 hours a day but should only be put on when the horse is grazing. The rest of the time, feed intake can be regulated using hay nets and other slow feeders, if necessary.