clean well managed pastures important
This is a clean pasture and well maintained which makes for a safe environment for horses
Managing pastures when sugar levels are high
Turnout is exercise. Horses on 24-hour turnout walk an average of 3-5 miles a day. Exercise helps build muscle and increases circulation to the feet. Interaction with other horses increases play time – a positive mental aspect.
An old saying is true: “Your cheapest feed is under your horse’s hooves.”
Grass is approximately 85% water, helping your horse stay hydrate. Grass is high in protein and has large amounts of Vitamin E and Magnesium for health. Grass helps your budget – it replenishes itself and is much less expensive than hay.
Maintaining your pasture is important to your horse’s health. Your goal is to provide healthy nutritional value for your grazing horse.
Problems: Controlling the consumption of new green grass when returning to pasture after a long winter.
1. Horses, in studies, eat faster in the Spring. They will eat more per day in pounds of grass than in the summer.
2. Sugar levels of all Spring grasses are higher than in any time of the year (except in early Fall frost grass), so it tastes better.
3. No matter how good the hay is, if horses have a choice, they will eat the grass.
4. Certain breeds will put their head down and never put it up when on Spring grass. Others can be on pasture 24/7 and never have an issue. Some horses, if on Spring grass too long, will get laminitis.
1. Good management practices keep carbohydrate levels lower.
2. Muzzles – studies show intake decreases by 50%, so a 1000-pound horse eats 1.5-2 pounds an hour instead of 3-4 pounds an hour. Less intake of carbohydrate means less Insulin surging and less hind gut Acidosis.
3. Slow, steady introduction to pasture. For horses with past laminitis issues, 15 minutes a day for a week, then 30 minutes a day for week, increasing each week until 4 hours a day is reached (for normal horses, 30 minutes a day for a week, 60 minutes a day for a week, etc.). At 4 hours a day, test Insulin numbers to see if they’re holding in the normal range. Many horses cannot go over 4-6 hours in the Spring, but in the Summer can go 8-10 hours. Don’t guess. Test.
4. Feed hay prior to turnout. Small mesh nets allow 24/7 access to hay. Continual hay lowers Insulin, protects feet.
5. Turnout in the early morning (5:00-8:00 am) in the gradual steps. Why? Sugar levels in grass are low at this time of day. Avoid afternoon turnout when sunlight raises carbohydrates in the grass.
6. Feed Baking Soda daily – 2 tablespoons in the morning and 2 more in the evening. One study showed Baking Soda in high levels can affect the pH in a horse’s hindgut, so we suggest trying a lower level daily to support the gut.
7. Exercise lowers Insulin, increases muscle, increases circulation.
8. Mow only to 6-8 inches which keeps weeds down and keeps sugar levels in grass lower. Do not mow like a golf course.
9. Night-time turnout (after 9:00 pm) allows your horse more time in the pasture. Night has lower sugars in the grass than afternoon sun grass.
10. Change paddocks if grass being eaten to lower than 4 inches. Shorter grass has more sugars.
11. In Spring, do not turn out onto new “little nibblet” grass. It’s very high in sugar and you destroy roots, so pasture quality will lower. Grass must be 6-8 inches, established prior to turnout. Do not “jump the gun.” Get a ruler.
12. Supplement with Vitamin E until your horse gets 8-12 hours of grazing time. Vitamin E helps the immune system and is anti-inflammatory.
13. Consider prebiotics during Spring to support the hindgut.
14. Plenty of water! Water moves food through the gut quicker, which further helps in Insulin control.
15. Feet grow quickly on pasture, so routine farrier care is essential.
16. Spring is the time to have your vet check Insulin, ACTH, and thyroid levels.
NO GRASS, NO WORRIES....RIGHT?
Many owners inadvertently place their horses in a poor health situation by putting them in the sparse, mostly-dirt-and-weeds pasture. A mistake often seen is owners trying to “neglect” the pasture into making it a low-carb safe pasture. This is not possible and only creates a field with little or no nutritional value.
Poor, weedy pastures present a problem. Weeds concentrate iron from the soil in much greater quantities than grass. These weeds, if eaten, can create huge iron surging in the horse, leading to elevated Insulin. Some types of weeds are very high in sugar, which, when eaten, can also lead to Insulin surging.
Because horses are designed as continual slow eaters, sparse, poor pasture also can create gobbling or combat situations if more than one horse is in the field when hay arrives.
SO, WHAT TO PLANT?
Limit seeding plants that contain higher carbohydrates and increase the quantity of seeds with plants that are less volatile. Any plant seed can grow up and have times where the carbohydrate levels increase (drought stress, cold stress), but we want to limit the varieties that have higher levels or that last longer in high carbohydrates.
Approximately 6-12 months prior to full reseeding (called over seeding when put on an established pasture) the soil should be tested. Soil with too low a pH will not let seeds grow well, so lime will need to be added, usually every 2-3 years. Soil samples will also show if fertilizer is needed and in what blend of nitrogen, potassium, or phosphorus. Horse owners want the lowest amount of fertilizer to maintain the pasture’s integrity. Many pastures on soil testing can go 1-2 years without fertilizer.
Certain seed types need to be avoided to lower the carbohydrate level in pastures – rye grass, wheat grass, and oat grass should not be part of the seed composition. Rye grass has multiple species, and is excellent for cattle pasture but not for horses. Unfortunately, rye grass seed is very cheap ($50.00 for 50 pounds) so it’s very common in commercial pre-made “pasture mix” blends at the feed store. Do not buy these. Seed companies are very willing to create non-rye blends for you.
A grass-based seed mix with a small amount of alfalfa is a great choice. Alfalfa holds up better in the summer heat and drought than grass, has a higher protein level, usually lower carbohydrate than grass, a slower growth rate in Spring and fixes nitrogen in the soil, so needs less fertilizer on the pasture. Kentucky Blue Grass, for example, has lower digestible energy per acre of pasture than many other types of grass, and is often used as the base of many pastures. This means that each pound of grass your horse eats has fewer carbohydrates. Imagine eating a pound of salad vs. a pound of Snickers bars!
State extension specialists are very helpful in soil testing, customized fertilizer composition and formulating seeds in the mix.
Horses will often eat dandelions. The flowers and leaves are regarded as safe in the Herbal Physicians Desk Reference and are listed as highly nutritious foods in Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine (Schoen Wynn).
Dandelion has been used for thousands of years for a variety of ailments, including liver, skin, and kidney ailments in people. Horses have been eating them for thousands of years with little problem.
The most common species is Taraxacum Officinale. As perennials, they return yearly. The large tap root, if incompletely removed, will regrow. Dandelions blossom into a flower several times in a season, and when the flower head matures, winds carry the 200+ seeds to new ground. Horses differ on their taste for dandelions – some avoid them, some eat them as they graze, and some seek them out.
Dandelion is a low caloric food, at only 25 calories per baking cup of chopped dandelion (USDA), with 72% carbohydrate, 13% fat, and 15% protein. This plant is high in Vitamins A and K, and low in B Vitamins and Vitamin E.
When might Dandelions be a problem?
1. Interaction with antibiotics in the Quinolone family – Baytril for example. Dandelion can slow metabolism of the drug, leading to elevated antibiotic levels.
2. Dandelion has high amounts of potassium – HYPP positive horses should avoid fields with lots of dandelions to avoid episodes.
3. Equine Insulin Resistance – One lab study (not on horses) shows dandelion consumption can increase Insulin secretion that “could lead to further Insulin Resistance.” A study with horses is needed. Also, a test of the dandelion’s sugar/starch levels in a pasture is needed to see if it is a problem and to determine if it concentrates iron like other weeds.
4. Dandelion is not approved for use in pregnant or nursing women; its effect in a mare is unknown.
Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistance
With more than 20% of the horse population now geriatric (20 years old and up), and the incidence of Equine Cushing Disease being seen earlier and earlier (latest studies suggest starting to test at 15 years old), pasture management is important. Equine Insulin Resistance is the #1 cause of laminitis in the world. A recent University of Kentucky study shows all aged horses, whether Cushings or not, exhibiting 70% loss of Insulin sensitivity.
Dr. Frank Reilly has been in equine practice for 27 years. He is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Equine Practitioners and a veterinary member of the American Association of Professional Farriers. He has spoken on equine insulin resistance/laminitis throughout the USA, including at the International Laminitis Conference and International Hoof Summit. www.equinemedsurg.com