Introducing a Horse to Spring Pasture
Eventually Spring will come. Despite the massive snowfall much of Northeast Ohio received this past week, Spring is on its way. Many of us have cloistered our horses in their stalls for much of the winter. When turned out in the pasture, they have been dependent on round bales. Some sifted through the snow for any scraps of dormant grass they could find. All of them have been dependent upon hay for their forage needs, but soon we will have lush green pastures once again. While this is a fantastic occurrence, early spring grass presents its own challenges for us horse owners.
First, to preserve the integrity of our pastures, we need to let our grass grow and develop healthy root systems. To ensure healthy pastures that will last all summer and into the fall, it may be necessary to use a sacrifice area or paddock for a few weeks. According to an article found on the Penn State University Extension website – grass should be allowed to grow to 4-6 inches before introducing horses to pasture.
Secondly, abrupt changes in a horse’s diet can lead to some serious problems. One common issue that can be avoided is founder. Horses, and especially ponies, can be prone to founder if they are turned out to pasture for an excessive length of time without an acclimation period. According to Christine Skelly of the Department of Animal Sciences at Michigan State University, grazing time should be restricted to roughly 20 minutes the first day. Increasing in 5 minute intervals thereafter until the horse has adjusted its diet to the fresh pasture grass. She lists other recommendations, including feeding horses hay prior to turn out. This will hopefully cut down on the amount of pasture grass they are eating initially.
Another issue that I have some personal experience with is colic. While most horses will be trouble free when properly introduced to spring pastures, there are those who have a tendency to over indulge. One of my horses, Sydney, will eat himself right into an impaction if left unchecked. Other horses may have this same tendency. Or may simply be prone to obesity when left to their own designs in the pasture.
A solution to both of those issues is to use a grazing muzzle. While your horse may hate you for the first week or so, know that you are taking a responsible step that your horse is either unable or unwilling to take for itself – limiting consumption. After a near two week stay at a local veterinary clinic, Sydney has had to wear a grazing muzzle for the past four years. He is still able to graze, just not at the rate he would prefer. We offer several styles and brands of grazing muzzles at Big Dee’s. Some clip directly to your horse’s halter, and others are a muzzle and halter combination. I have been using the Best Friend Equine Grazing Muzzle Deluxe on Sydney, and have been very satisfied with it.
Also be aware of is that the sugar levels in grass can wreak havoc on metabolic horses. Early spring pasture grass is higher in sugar (fructan) content than either summer or fall pasture grass. Again, grazing muzzles can be a very good solution depending on your horse’s unique requirements. I would recommend consulting with your veterinarian if you have a metabolic horse. As a general rule, the sugar content in grass will be highest during the afternoon hours. It builds during the day and starts to recede in the evening hours. Night time or early morning turnout times generally will work better for metabolic horses.
Hopefully we can all be worrying about properly introducing our horses to beautiful, lush, green spring pastures in the very near future. For the time being however, I believe I have a driveway to plow.