The idea of horses grazing peacefully in lush green pastures is every horse person’s dream. Today, that dream may be a nightmare instead.
Current horsekeeping practices have created couch potato horses. The modern horse is often raised on a high protein, sugary feed, given limited exercise even as a youngster, and turned out on relatively lush pasture. In contrast, truly natural horses move 20 hours a day, covering many miles, often in rough terrain. The forage they eat is varied, and they must move between each bite. In the winter food is limited, so they pack on weight in the fall, lose weight in the winter, and pack it back on in the spring.
Conversely, many domesticated horses are given high quality hay, and feeds with high levels of soluble carbohydrates, all year long. Add to that the stress factors of confinement, boredom, lack of company, heavy show schedules, or lack of exercise, and the result is overweight, fat, even obese horses at risk of developing Insulin Resistance (IR).
The solution is not a simple one. We have to look at our horse management and our lifestyles. Many people cannot stand to see their horse “starve” for a minute, or to see a rib showing. We might not get around to riding as regularly as we want.
GET TO KNOW YOUR GRASS
Take stock of what type of pasture grass you have and what its growing season is. When does it have the most nutrition, when the least? For example, in the middle part of the country, fescue looks green in the summer and will be eaten if there is not much else, but it has poor taste. After a couple serious frosts it becomes sweet, has more sugar, tastes great and provides excellent nutrition all winter. Horses can founder on it in winter; after it is grazed down, it does not grow back until spring. In Florida, the Bahia grass is nutritious in the summer, but, though green looking in winter, has very little nutritive value. Crab grass, the curse of many people, grows well in the warm/hot seasons, is actually very nutritious (read: fat producing), but dies off totally in the winter. Get your local county extension agent to help identify your grasses.
Weeds are in every field (and should be), since many are medicinal plants and very good for your horse. But weeds can be high in protein and/or carbohydrates, so may be too rich for IR-prone horses.
Once you know what you have in your fields, check out the non-structural carbohydrate (NSC) content (sugar, starch and fructan levels). Variations occur in NSC throughout the day and night and the seasons of the year, depending on the type of grass. Even grass that looks dead can have green roots and high sugar contents. Make a plan for grazing based on the NSC in the grass. The best place for grass information and testing is www.safergrass.org .
If you board your horse, you may have to settle for a paddock with the least amount of grass, a dirt paddock or a grazing muzzle. A muzzle is an excellent way to limit grazing while allowing interaction and exercise with other horses. For horses who are adept at removing muzzles, new designs are available that many horses will wear more comfortably.
PADDOCK AND PASTURE POSSIBILITIES
If a dirt paddock is your only choice for pasture turnout, try to have at least one friend for company. Also really make an effort to get out and do interesting things, whether riding, in-hand work or simple grooming to help decrease stress.
If you have access to a large enough area, think about how to set it up to increase exercise and to decrease NSC in the grass. This may involve paddock rotation, which allows you to graze down some pastures, then let them rest. Or you may use one pasture in the evening when NSC levels are higher, and another, grazed-down paddock in the morning when levels are lower. Longer grass often has less NSC; however, a hungry horse can eat a lot more of it. If your horse is very sensitive to NSC, you may be able to turn him out only for a short time on any grass.
Natural paddocks that try to imitate the grazing patterns of wild horses are becoming popular ( www.paddockparadise.com ), though are not practical in all situations.
SAY ‘NO’ TO THE LAWN LOOK
The worst thing you can do is fertilize your grass with chemical fertilizers. If you feel a need to enrich the soil, learn about organic soil amendments and how to increase the soil trace minerals (www.acresusa.com is a great resource). IR horses do not need any richer grass, no matter how much your spouse wants the perfect green lawn-like pasture.
Joyce C. Harman, DVM, MRCVS, operates Harmany Equine Clinic, Ltd. in Washington, Virginia. Acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, herbs, nutrition and saddle fitting make up most of the practice. www.harmanyequine.com , 540-675-1855.