Horses eat grass, everyone knows that. But what is surprising to a lot of people is that, even though grass is the most natural food source for a horse, it isn’t as simple as opening the gate and letting your horse into a lush, green field.
If you don’t turn out your horse the right way, you’ll end up with a bunch of preventable problems.
If your horse has been eating hay or grazing in a dry or sparse pasture all winter, suddenly turning her out into a very green field is like letting a diabetic kid run wild in a candy store.
Your horse can end up with colic (painful abdominal problems) and laminitis (painful inflammation in the hooves).
Prolonged exposure to high carbohydrate (sugar) grasses can also cause metabolic syndrome – a grouping of clinical problems that often include obesity – and can lead to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Always transition your horse or pony gradually
If your horse is turned out in the same pasture all year round, she’ll be introduced to the new growth of grass in a slower, more natural transition.
A lot of people keep their herds like this without a problem, but there are several factors that determine if this is right for your horse.
Many breeds of horses and ponies evolved in areas with extremely sparse pastures, such as arid or rocky regions where the grass is thin and scattered.
In this type of terrain, horses spend a lot of time searching for food and, in the wild, horses will travel 50-60 km (30-40 miles) per day looking for food and water.
A pasture where the grass is thick and rich makes grazing too easy. Horses will remain reasonably inactive because the rich grass makes them fill up quickly and, as it’s available everywhere, makes them sedentary since they don’t have to go looking for food.
On top of that, we often employ the kind of paddock and pasture design that discourages walking.
All horses and ponies should be introduced to pasture slowly and monitored to make sure they don’t eat too much too quickly. When you first start turning out your horse or pony, give them fresh hay to eat about an hour before to make sure they’re not hungry going in.
Begin by letting them have 5-10 minutes in the pasture for the first week and slowly increase the time they can graze there. The full transition will take several weeks as you gradually increase the time they have in the pasture.
Some ponies and horses may never be able to spend a full day in lush pasture
If you have a horse or pony that is an especially easy keeper, give that individual even less time in the pasture. You may need to take that particular horse out of the pasture sooner than the other ones to prevent illness.
Especially the easy keepers will gain weight very easily and you need to restrict grazing time to prevent them from getting fat.
Especially a stubborn pony can try to convince you that she’s starving and needs to be in the pasture, but keep an eye on her body condition to see how she’s really doing.
Easy keepers will stay the healthiest if they’re kept in pastures with sparse grass and provided with the right amount of hay to eat instead.
If you’ve got an easy keeper, whether it’s a horse or a pony, go easy on the concentrates and supplements. If you do need to feed concentrates, start with smaller portions and build your way up and consult your vet or nutritionist to get the balance right and to help with continued monitoring.
What is equine metabolic syndrome?
You can most easily recognise equine metabolic symbol by obesity – especially in the neck. It’s also often accompanied by laminitis, a painful hoof inflammation.
When your horse has equine metabolic syndrome, losing extra weight can be very difficult and will most likely require severe restrictions on feed as well as denying the horse access to pasture grazing, at least temorarily.
A definitive diagnosis requires lab tests to determine blood glucose levels and to rule out pituitary disease (PPID), so this isn’t something you can diagnose on your own.
Treatment and diet restrictions also need to be done under the supervision of your vet and your horse will need regular checkups for the rest of her life.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
It’s always easier to prevent these life-altering problems that will require long-term care that it is to treat them after they’ve occurred.
Always remember that grass is full of sugar and letting your horse run wild in a green, lush field is never a good idea.
Never turn your horse out hungry and restrict the time that your horse can spend in a really green field.
If you want to make your pastures more horse-friendly, consider replanting and redesigning them to get more use out of your pastures.
Having a pasture that encourages your horse to walk, and that has different kinds of surfaces to walk over will help to keep your horse and her hooves in good shape.