AS we move into the longer evenings and hopefully the warmer days of spring, horses and ponies may be turned out to grass and owners may struggle to maintain their animals at the optimum weight and condition score. Management is the key to reducing the risk of weight gain and associated health problems. Below are some tips you may find useful for managing the risk:
Like humans, animals have an appetite they want to satisfy. If food intake is restricted below that of appetite, feelings of hunger will continue, often making animals grumpy to handle and ‘pushy’ when around food.
So how do you satisfy appetite without feeding lots of calories? The best way to achieve this is by feeding low calorie chaffs, hay that is low in digestible energy and has been soaked to remove sugars, and by grazing old, stalky, rough grass. Only add in additional feeds or supplements that your horse or pony actually needs.
Feeding low energy chaffs in large plastic buckets as an alternative to hay, or as part of the hay ration for stabled animals, can also help to reduce calorie intake as the energy gained is able to be monitored by weighing daily amounts fed. Providing different forage sources also keeps horses and ponies occupied for longer, helping to slow down eating and reduce time without food. Weighing of all feed is recommended, as are regular two-weekly weigh-ins of your animals using a weigh tape, or weigh bridge, if you are lucky enough to have one.
All horses and ponies should have the opportunity to move around freely and exhibit natural behaviours. Usually, this requirement is met by turning out onto pasture, however, starch, sugar and energy rich spring and summer grazing increases the likelihood of weight gain and development of associated health problems.
So how do you allow your horse or pony to spend time in the field whilst limiting their grass intake?
1) Limit grazing area
Limiting grazing area is particularly useful when pastures are short. Horses and ponies can graze very close to the ground, meaning they can continue to consume grass even when there seems little fresh grass growth. Reducing the area limits the amount of actual pasture available to eat, particularly the amount of fresh shoots, thus reducing total grass intake, whilst allowing free movement and natural behaviour. Limiting grazing area will, however, increase the need to remove droppings from the pasture and may not be suitable for large groups of animals.
2) Strip graze
Strip grazing using electric fencing is particularly helpful if horses and ponies are forced to graze lush pastures. It is also useful where groups of horses must be grazed together, as it allows regulation of fresh pasture intake without limiting the space available to individual animals.
A second electric fence line can also be used to control the grazing area (Figure 1).
3) Grazing muzzles
Grazing muzzles have been shown to effectively reduce grass intake – although muzzles should be introduced gradually over a period of time, and should only be used for part of the day. Muzzles seem to work best when horses and ponies have access to longer grass, as the leaves are able to pass through the muzzle and be eaten. When used on short grazing, the inability for any leaves to pass through the muzzle seems to result in horses and ponies losing motivation to graze, resulting in them spending considerable lengths of time just standing in the field. Horses should be monitored closely if grazing muzzles are introduced.
Increasing energy expenditure and encouraging movement is also beneficial in any horse or pony physically able to do so. This can be achieved by increasing the workload or the distance walked to the field. If using strip grazing, make the fresh grass available at the furthest away point in the field to increase the distance walked before the reward of the fresh grass.
Horses and ponies who are overweight are at higher risk of nutritional conditions, such as Laminitis. For these animals, correct feeding and control of grass intake is essential, whilst keeping horses moving promotes joint and limb health, allows natural behaviour and helps to burn calories.
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