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The grass is sprouting, and the horses are already stretching their necks under the fence to reach the green stalks. Every walk turns into pulling on the lead rope and raising the owners stress levels.
The grazing season is upon us What should you look out for?

Take your time

Even though everyone is fully aware that a slow approach to fresh spring grass is the best policy, impatience often wins over the knowledge in practice But as silly as it may sound to some, you can’t approach the reintroduction to full time pasture slowly enough, especially with horses that have a sensitive metabolism. This includes horses that have had faecal water, diarrhoea, or colic in winter and, of course, all horses that have already had laminitis in the past, they are therefore more susceptible to reoccurrence. Special care should also be taken with horses that carry excessive weight and those diagnosed with insulin resistance or Kryptopyrrolurie (KPU).

If such horses are grazed too quickly, there is a high risk of colic or laminitis – both potentially fatal diseases.

Therefore, if possible, start with 5 minutes in hand and slowly increase by 5 minutes until you have increased to about an hour Then you can usually continue at 15-minute intervals. However, the exact duration always depends on the growth and the individual sensitivity of the horse.

As a rule of thumb, the greener and ‘juicier’ the grass, the higher the sugar and pectin content, which are partially responsible for the development of laminitis or colic.

In addition, after cold nights, only graze from midday, if possible, as fructans are already largely broken down by this time. Their content is highest in the morning. And of course: the more sensitive the horse reacts to feed changes, the slower you should approach grazing.

Herd of young horses
Horses are excited to be finally out on pasture full time

Hasty eaters can be equipped with a grazing muzzle

Studies have shown, what most horse owners also observe themselves: Horses can vary in their eating speed greatly. For example, if the grazing time is restricted, they can eat just as much grass in one hour as they did in four hours. Less grazing therefore means more hasty eating with poor chewing mechanics and too much and too fast of a nutrient intake. The old tactic of only letting horse with metabolism disorders out to pasture for a short time, so that they can spend some time out on grass doesn’t in fact work.
What to do with the “hoovers” amongst the horses?
Grazing muzzles are a good alternative option. Even if it initially seems cruel to us: ultimately, they can stay in the paddock for longer, enjoy fresh air and socialise with their friends. This is good for their mental being and at the same time they don’t eat too much grass, which is good for their intestines. There are many different models, so you have to see what suits you and your horse. The ThinLine Flexible Grazing muzzle has the highest rating. It is less confining, well ventilated and can be added onto to your own leather head collar, it does not interfere with the horses’ grazing behaviour after a short familiarisation period to adjust the feeding speed to the horse and grazing condition. This means that even sensitive horses can spend longer and therefore more relaxed periods grazing in their usual group. After grazing, the grazing muzzle should of course be removed so that the horses can fulfil their need for social grooming, etc.

In addition always offer hay

You often hear the argument that there is enough grass in the pasture, so the horses should eat grass and not the expensive hay. Unfortunately, this is too short-sighted. Young pasture grass, which we see in the paddocks in spring (and in summer when the fields are left to ‘rest’ so that they can grow back) is particularly rich in nutrients and low in fibre. The fibres that support the leaves and stalks at this early stage are mainly pectins. They are digested in the large intestine mainly by protozoa, which acidify the large intestine. This is undesirable for the cellulolytic microorganisms, which make up the most important part of the horse’s intestinal gut flora. The microbes that reside in the gut flora are mainly nourished by cellulose, which is found in hay, but only in small quantities in young grass growth. To ensure that the large intestine remains stable and does not go into dysbiosis, it is therefore essential that the horses are offered hay during the grazing period.

If you only have a small area of pasture available and work with rotational grazing (one rests and can grow back while the other is grazed), you should urgently offer hay throughout the summer.

This is because the grass never has the chance to grow out fully otherwise and store the amount of cellulose that the horse needs in its ration. Horses that are fed hay in summer are much more stable in their intestinal gut flora and therefore cope better with additional metabolic changes than those that live exclusively on pasture grass.

Horses that are fed hay in summer are much more stable in the hindgut © Adobe Stock / virgonira

Bitter herbs stabilise digestion

Many horses react with greenish diarrhoea during the grazing on period. This is due to imbalances in the large intestine. The intestine has adapted to cellulose-rich hay throughout the winter and has therefore generally found a stable balance. The large quantity of fresh grass not only contributes to a lot of sugar and protein, but in particular pectins. At the same time, the fibre content of the hay, which regulates peristalsis, is missing. The coarser the fibres, the slower the peristalsis. The finer the fibres, the faster. Young pasture grass does not contain enough fibre to regulate peristalsis appropriately.

The result is a too rapid intestinal transit, which presents as “diarrhoea”. This can be counteracted by feeding bitter herbs. They promote bile production in the liver. Bile is significantly involved in the regulation of peristalsis. This allows the intestines to realign and the diarrhoea to decreases.

Of course, hay or branches from non-toxic trees or good quality straw should also always be offered, whose cellulose or lignin fibres also have a regulating effect on peristalsis. If the horse has the opportunity, they particularly like to eat the (bitter) dandelion and nibble on bushes and trees. A walk in the woods, where the horse is allowed to nibble here and there, is a natural addition to the spring diet and provides important nutrients to regulate digestion.

Hoof placement and movement patterns to be accessed daily – risk of laminitis!

One of the biggest risks during the grazing on period is the development of laminitis. This inflammatory disease of the laminae in the hoof is potentially fatal and should therefore not be taken lightly.
Why one horse gets laminitis and another doesn’t is often impossible to say from the outside. In addition, there are around a dozen different types of laminitis, with a wide variety of causes and triggers and also with a different type of process.

The following are considered critical during the grazing period: Fructans, pectins, proteins and sugars.

However, the effects of these different nutrients vary. Fructans, pectins and an excess of protein in the feed lead to dysbiosis in the large intestine and a rapid drop in the pH value. This triggers a mass death of the intestinal flora, resulting in the release of large quantities of endotoxins. These are absorbed by the horse via the intestinal membrane and are known to trigger laminitis.
However, high sugar levels can also be the cause of laminitis, although these do not reach the large intestine but are already removed from the food in the small intestine. In most cases, this is due to an existing (and usually unrecognised) insulin resistance. The intake of high-sugar pasture grass leads to high blood sugar levels, which are suspected of instantly triggering laminitis. They also naturally lead to long-lasting, high insulin levels. Studies have shown that insulin can trigger laminitis.
In any case, caution is called for, as we still find relatively high fructan levels in the grass, especially in the morning, and of course the young growth currently consists mainly of pectin, sugar, and protein.

Ponies and other native breeds, baroque horses and cold-blooded horses are much more at risk than warmbloods, thoroughbreds, or Arabians (which does not mean that they cannot also get laminitis!) Horses with a history of metabolic problems are more likely to get laminitis in spring than those that have always been healthy. Overweight horses and those that are rarely, infrequently, or irregularly exercised are more at risk than horses that are worked daily at walk, trot and canter.

Measuring girth; fat horse; metre tape; EMS
Overweight horses and those that are rarely, infrequently, or irregularly exercised are more at risk of laminitis.
© Adobe Stock / dabyg

In any case be vigilant and observe your horse’s walking pattern every day and intervene at an early stage. Horses with the onset of laminitis often already show sensitivity in walk before the acute onset, they will try and avoid hard and stony ground and prefer deep (sandy) ground or soft grass verges. The stride length is shortened, and the gait begins to look a little “pottery” because they try to lift the hoof off the ground earlier without going through a complete rolling phase. When standing, they sometimes try to dig a small hole and then stand on the edge so that the toe protrudes and thus does not receive any pressure from below. They like to seek out puddles to cool their feet and avoid walking unnecessarily, which is often seen as “reluctance to move” or “lack of motivation”. Turns are also increasingly avoided. The feet may be warm after exercise, which is a sign of good blood circulation.
However, if the horse has been standing for a long time (e.g. after grooming or at the hay container), the hooves should be slightly cooler than the body. If they are clearly warm or if a clear pulsation can be felt in the arteries supplying the toes, the vet should be informed immediately.
If the grazing on process has not been successful and the horse has laminitis, then grazing should be stopped immediately. The horse may nibble on lean (low-sugar!) hay for 24 hours, preferably mixed with straw from a close-meshed hay net, as well as mineral feed, a salt stone and water. All other feed should be removed from the diet until further notice, including the beloved banana or carrot.

Under no circumstances should the suffering horse be fed a radical diet of straw alone!

This can lead to fatal hyperlipidaemia. A horse with laminitis should always be under the care of a qualified vet. We are happy to provide advice and support with alternative therapeutic measures and are also happy to work closely with the treating vet.

You can find out more about “Grazing” in
5 early warning signs that can indicate laminitis.

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