For horse people, spring means better weather and longer days, which in turn mean more opportunities to spend time with your horse. For horses, spring means lots of tempting, delicious new grass to eat. The fast-growing grass of spring is candy for horses, and access must be controlled to keep your horse healthy.
Horses are grazing animals and born to thrive on grass, right? Well, yes, but too much grass too soon can do them great harm. After a winter diet of hay and concentrates, a horse turned out to graze at will in lush new pasture is at risk for colic as well as "founder" or laminitis. As horse owners, we often have to protect these large but fragile animals from their own instincts.
New-grown grass is especially high in soluble carbohydrates, such as fructan. These simple sugars and carbohydrates are readily broken down in the horse’s digestive system. Overconsumption can lead to excessive gas production in the intestine, or “gas colic.” Gas colic is painful and distressing for the horse, and frightening to the owner. Worse yet is “impaction colic,” where the intestine fails to move ingested material along normally. Instead, the gut is blocked or impacted. Impaction colic is not only extremely painful, it is potentially lethal and requires immediate veterinary care.
The sudden influx of simple sugars from new grass can also result in the metabolic changes which cause laminitis. Laminitis, or founder, is the result of damage to the tissues that bind the hoof wall to the underlying bone. The condition makes it painful and difficult for the horse to walk or even stand normally.
Veterinary attention should be sought at the first symptoms of laminitis. Symptoms include: lameness, heat in the hoof, pounding digital pulse, and the classic “laminitis stance.” In the characteristic stance, the horse is trying to relieve pressure on his front feet by bringing the rear legs further underneath his body, and pushing the front feet forward. If laminitis is left untreated, the bone of the horse’s foot can protrude through the sole of the hoof. If that happens, prognosis for regaining soundness, or even survival is questionable.
Does this mean you have to deny your horse the pleasure of his favorite food? Not entirely. It means you have to be the brains of the partnership, and introduce your horse to spring grass with care.
-- Start with grazing sessions of 15 minutes, and gradually work up to a full day. Later in the season, the grass will mature at a lower sugar content, and restriction won’t be so critical.
-- Fructan and other sugars rise during morning hours to peak around noon, and then gradually decline through the afternoon. Avoid grazing during peak times.
-- Follow any special veterinary recommendations for your horse or pony. Some animals are especially inclined to laminitis or excessive weight gain, and have to be managed with extra caution.
Spring is a great time to be outdoors enjoying your horse. Watching your horse grazing peacefully with his friends in a brilliant green pasture is a lovely sight. Just don’t forget: As you wouldn’t leave your child to live on a diet of Easter candy, your horse needs you to look out for his best interests.
Marlissa blogs about books (including horse books!) and the reading life at "You Are What You Read." She is also a Pinterest addict and can be found at her page of the same name.