Whoever coined the term “easy keeper” did not own a beautiful grassy field full of overweight horses threatening to become laminitic. It is much more work to limit grass intake than it is to open the gate and turn a bunch of horses out.
The idea behind using a muzzle is to limit grass intake while allowing the horse pasture time. Mentally and physically, pasture time with friends keeps horses active and happy. Horses left in small paddocks without company or with limited company, experience stress and do not get any exercise unless ridden daily. Many horses hate to be muzzled. Can you blame them? No, but you can try to make it more pleasant and safe.
- The muzzle needs to allow enough space from front to back so there is room to chew naturally. There should be clearance of about 2 fingers space behind the jawbones at the back.
Muzzle with breathing space
Half linger, with new muzzle showing plenty of breathing space.
- For an average horse the muzzle should attach to the halter and hang down, leaving about ½ inch or a bit less between the nose and the bottom.
- The hole or holes in the bottom should allow a limited amount of grass to get to the teeth. Check the hole size weekly; frequently the hole will wear quite a bit larger than you think, leaving no grazing restriction.
- Muzzles should always be put on with a breakaway halter. The ones with a thin leather crownpiece can work very well, though be sure the leather does not get too stiff and rub behind the ears. Oil them, cover them with sheepskin or replace them if needed.
- Check the back of the ears to see if there are rub marks. If so, your horse’s head shape may require some padding. Pay particular attention to this if your horse has become head shy after wearing a muzzle. He may have a headache which can occur if the muzzle becomes heavy and wet with dew or rain.
Muzzles need to be adjusted so there is comfortable space for the jaw to move without constant rubbing. This is a bit snug for this horses head shape. Leave about a half an inch (or less if you have a Houdini type horse) at the bottom where the lips meet the ground.
- For the clever “Houdini-type” horses who are good at escaping, be creative and add straps (browband, chin strap etc.) which can prevent some horses from removing the halter.
- Any strap you add must also be free from buckles that could become caught on an external object like a fence, but also must not poke another horse in the eye or cause a cut to the face.
- For comfort, use real sheepskin to prevent rubbing. It still breathes, sheds water and does not get as messy when it has been worn in hot weather.
- Be sure your horse can defend him or herself in the pasture with a muzzle on.
The serious side of overweight horses is that they can become Insulin Resistant (IR), which makes it very hard to lose weight, and can develop laminitis, which is a very painful, debilitating disease and can lead to death from complications. So it is very important to manage weight.
Some horses will not wear a muzzle, becoming very depressed or angry. Other horses will remove anything you put on their head, no matter how you tie it on. Still others will hire their friends to remove it. For those types of horses, perhaps nothing will work except confinement, but the more comfortable the muzzle is, the more likely they will keep it on…most of the time.
Exercise is one of the most important weight management tools. However, not every horse can be exercised enough. Supplementation with ingredients known to help IR and weight loss is also important. But controlling the amount of grass intake remains one of the most critical aspects of weight control.
Muzzles are one of the necessary evils needed by many modern horses. Muzzles allow better socialization, exercise time with friends, and more freedom to be a horse. The alternative of locking horses in stalls or paddocks alone is much more stressful, and allowing obesity and laminitis to occur is cruel and expensive. So, on balance, a well-fitted muzzle starts to sound pretty good.
Joyce C. Harman, DVM, MRCVS, operates Harmany Equine Clinic, Ltd. in Washington, VA, 540-675-1855. Acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, herbs, nutrition and saddle fitting make up most of the practice. www.harmanyequine.com. Look for her new muzzle she designed that eliminates many of the issues with muzzle fitting at harmanymuzzle.com