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While most owners of Warmbloods and Thoroughbreds are pretty relaxed about their horses enjoying the grazing season to its fullest, with up to 24/7 turn out periods on grass, many owners of other breeds experience a more stressful time. How much turn-out is suitable? Hopefully the horse won’t put on too much weight. And hopefully the horse won’t get laminitis! A summer with regular rain showers, alternating with periods of warm sunshine, makes the grass grow particularly well. What to do with the latently overweight pony or Spaniard? Completely restrict turn-out time? Or restrict by the hour?

Firstly, it is completely normal for horses to put on weight in summer during the grazing season. A healthy horse that is kept in an equine-appropriate management uses up these reserves in winter, as the diet is usually not as rich in winter and a lot of additional energy is required to keep warm. It is therefore normal for a horse to go from the grazing season to the winter a little rounder, as long as it comes back from the winter to the summer a little leaner. The reality is somewhat different, as horses are being fed regularly during winter and also wear a rug to counteract the cold weather conditions, after all nobody wants their horse to be freezing. These horses enter the spring, well nourished. Year after year, the horse gains a little more weight to the point where the metabolism starts to be affected negatively, and the horse slowly is developing Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). As with humans, being significantly overweight (obesity) is not a minor oversight, but a serious health risk. From insulin resistance and laminitis to cardiovascular diseases and early onset of osteoarthritis, this is everything a horse owner would rather not have to deal with.

Nutrient-rich fields – a problem

Thanks to artificial fertilisers our fields these days are generally much richer in nutrients then they were 100 years ago. Even if you haven’t fertilised your pasture for years: old fertilisation from previous use as a high-performance pasture or arable land remains in the soil for a long time and, of course, the nutrient-rich grasses that are grown for cattle farming on the neighbouring pasture will seed into your grazing fields. Pastures nowadays are richer in nutrients and poorer in plant and herbal species than what wild horses or horses in nature reserve areas are exposed to. The quality of the hay is usually the same: high sugar and protein contents, which is great for dairy cows, but unfortunately completely unsuitable for horses. As a result, they are fed high-performance hay in winter and high-performance pasture grass in summer – a fatal diet for the steppe animal ‘The horse’. And while 100 years ago horses were still working animals, their job was to pull a cart or plough fields, today they are mostly leisure partners – which is good for the soul of the horses owner, but sadly won’t help the horse to use up all this energy it has built up while eating the nutrient-rich feed. A diet that is too rich and at the same not accompanied with adequate exercise leads to obesity and ‘diseases of affluence’, not only in humans.

Haflinger grazing in the pasture; grass warts
© Adobe Stock / ba11istic

Pasture time however is indispensable in an equine-appropriate management. It reflects most closely their natural behaviour: The horse searches for its food on the ground for hours, selects the plants it wants to eat and moves steadily forwards – instead of monotonously plucking hay from the net while standing in the same place at the hay rack for hours on end. As important as grazing is, in the case of horses prone to laminitis and a tendency to be overweight, a few points should be considered.

1) Perfect grazing is practically non-existent

Unfortunately so. In that case you would have to be able to offer 1-2 hectares of low-nutrient pasture with bushes, shrubs and trees per horse. The reality is quite different, where 20 horses share 2 hectares. In order to prevent the field turning into a ploughed field within a very short period of time, seed mixtures are applied in general to improve the ground conditions. Unfortunately, these are exactly the grasses that have high nutritional values and are therefore undesirable for horses to graze on. In addition, a lot of fertilisers are being used to ensure plenty of grass grows to fulfil the horse’s needs, so no additional hay must be fed – hay costs money and the pasture grows on its own. This is also counterproductive. Moderate fertilisation is good and sensible as otherwise the sugar, fructan and endophyte content increases excessively due to overgrazing. The skill is in the dosage applied when fertilising. It is therefore better to sow low-nutrients grasses, fertilise in moderation and rotate the horses regularly. The grass should be given the opportunity to regenerate from grazing. But not every stable has enough pasture to let each field rest for three quarters of a year.

During the field recovery period, however, freshly cut grass can be fed in the paddock as an alternative to grazing grass. This practice has gone completely out of fashion, it offers an excellent alternative for the horses to eat the valuable plant substances from fresh pasture plants without ruining the pasture plant colonisation. A field that is cut in strips throughout the summer retains its biodiversity over the years, does not suffer from soil compaction and parasite proliferation and is therefore an equine-appropriate and healthy alternative to grazing on areas that are too small. Just make sure that no more grass is being cut than can be eaten in 12 hours – offer one helping in the morning and one helping in the evening in addition to the hay ad libitum. What is left over is usually only plants that are poisonous or unpalatable – and would also remain in the pasture. These can then simply be disposed of on the muck heap before the next round. This way of feeding fresh green grass is not the same as horses grazing in the fields by themselves, but it’s an alternate option if space is an issue and helps keep the fields healthy, horses seem happy with this option as a temporary alternative.

2) Shorter grazing time – less feed?

For a long time, it was advised that horses at risk should only be allowed to graze for half an hour an hour at most, while horses not at risk are able to stay out grazing longer. Two major issues with that are: Firstly, if a horse is separated from its group and placed in the paddock on its own. It can be extremely stressful for the horse in a well-functioning herd – both for the group and for the horse that is separated. It is not so much that a horse perceives this as ‘unfair’, but rather that a herd is a closed entity. If a member of the herd is taken away, the whole structure falls apart. Often a mate is then added so that the horse is not so alone in the paddock. This is generally a good decision, but it still disrupts the herd and causes stress, as two members are now missing.

Studies have also shown that horses change their eating behaviour when access to pasture grass is reduced. If the horses were previously on the pasture for four hours and now only for one hour, they quickly manage to stuff as much grass into them in the one hour as they did in four hours. This means that a shorter grazing time achieves the opposite: The horses eat just as much and in addition gorge and don’t chew thoroughly, which can cause digestive problems. The same behaviour that can be observed in most stables with hay feeders: The shorter access time to roughage simply causes stress and makes for ‘gobbling behaviour’ when eating, instead of calm, thorough chewing. So simply shortening the grazing time is no guarantee that the horse will not become fat, and it also encourages stress behaviour.

3) Strip grazing or frequently changing the fields?

Welsh pony grazing on a lean pasture
© Eileen / Adobe Stock

A lot of livery yards resolve the lack of grazing by using strip grazing technique, this is done by fencing off pastures and then moving the fence a little further every day or every few days. This has the advantage that the horses can’t ‘gorge’ themselves unhindered, so you can regulate the amount consumed per time unit quite well. The disadvantage, however, is within the part of the pasture that has already been eaten down and is still available to eat as well as the ‘new’ strip: the horses continue to eat each blade of grass that grows back on a weekly basis. This grass has become stressed, which increases the fructan and endophyte content – the factors that contribute to laminitis. The same also applies if the paddocks have already been eaten down. It is exactly these grazed down pastures that are more often than not used for horses that are prone to metabolic disorders, it’s because it is assumed that “there is nothing left’ to graze on. But the little bit of grass that is left tends to be more harmful to the metabolism than mature grass, or even better mature, left-over grass.

The alternative to stripe grazing is changing fields: This means using several grazing areas that are only grazed short periods of time before the horses are moved to a new area. This is much kinder on the pastures than strip grazing, as the fields get a good chance to recover and regrow without being eaten down and trampled on. Especially in rainy summers, the grass then grows back very quickly and abundantly. And this is exactly where the danger lies: this grass is similar in composition to spring grass. It is very rich in nutrients and low in fibre and therefore very nutritious. It is therefore unsuitable for horses with a tendency to be overweight.

Traditionally, farms used to have two pastures: An early summer pasture and a late summer pasture. This gave each field three quarters of a year to recover from grazing. A first hay cut was often made from the late summer pasture, if the vegetation allowed it, so that in late summer the grass hadn’t turned into dried long stalks. If you have land of a size that allows for such grazing, then rotational grazing is a good alternative. The fields are in that case usually large enough for the horses to have an oversupply of grass. If any horses are already suffering from an underlying metabolic disorder, such as an unrecognised insulin resistance, then their metabolism can ‘go off the rails’ during such a summer.

4) Hay in the fields? They’re already too fat anyway!

This seems a recurring discussion in most stable yards. The fact that horses become overweight when grazing is taken as a reason not to offer an alternative food source in the pasture. If horses have free access from the pasture to hay and vice versa, you can observe that they do not continuously stay on the pasture solely, even though the grass is much juicier and tastier. They eat hay every now and then. And that’s what the gut needs! Because the pasture grass has far too little fibre in relation to its nutritional value, especially too little cellulose. Hay, on the other hand, contains plenty of cellulose, but fewer nutrients than grass. And a healthy horse’s intestines depend on a balanced ratio of fibre to nutrients.

© Adobe Stock/michelangeloop

That’s why horses also like to eat fibrous feed during the grazing season: hay, twigs, branches, straw, and leaves are popular for stabilising the intestinal flora while feeling full and not adding extra pounds. The same applies to feeding hay during the grazing season. The hay can be a stalky that also contains wood or reeds. Good oat straw is also a favourite between meals. And if the next storm breaks another branch off the apple tree, you can simply throw it into the paddock – it will be almost completely ‘eaten’ within a few days. Hay in addition to pasture grass is therefore an essential part of managing weight and intestinal and metabolic health during the grazing season, especially when pastures are full of eaten down or fresh green grass.

5) Grazing muzzle yes or no?

It is becoming increasingly common to see horses in the pasture wearing a ‘grazing muzzle’. What at first glance looks cruel towards the horse is actually the only way for some horses to go out to pasture at all. Especially when a metabolic disorder has been identified, both the stress of having to stay stabled as well as the access to rich pasture grass can trigger serious illnesses ranging from colic to laminitis. In this case it is much better to reduce the feed intake per hour and allow the horse to join his friends in the field. From a psychological point of view, it is essential for the horse to full fill its natural instinct, foraging in the field while moving slowly and consuming secondary plant substances that are lost in the hay during the drying process. A grazing muzzle is therefore a helpful assistant to allow the horse outside to graze, and live a less stressful life, while resetting the metabolism helping the horse to achieve a normally functioning body again, so that eventually grazing without a muzzle is possible in the future. There are now various models available, and you should try out which one suits your horse best.

Grazing muzzles, where you can adjust the hole size to the condition of the pasture are ideal. Especially when the grass is very long, many models simply flatten the grass, and the horse can barely thread a stalk through. This can result in frustration with a very grumpy pony and a destroyed muzzle. Trial and error seem the best option to find the perfect fitting model that suits the horse but also the conditions of the pasture. The muzzle shouldn’t be kept on the horse for 24 hours. Ideally the horse should not wear the muzzle for more than a few hours, and it should be removed once the horse has access to hay again, for example. Once the muzzle has been removed horses can start grooming each other and also, it’s a lot easier to drink without the muzzle. It’s recommendable for hourly use and an alternative to horses being solely stabled and therefore extremely stressed. However, the long-term goal should always be to get the metabolism back to normal so that the horse can eventually go out to pasture without the need for such aid.

With this in mind, have a good grazing season also for all the ‘Good-doers’.

Team Sanoanimal