Thursday 14 June 2012

Grass, your horse and managing the risks

Its the time of year when its transparently obvious that one of the biggest challenges for horse-owners in the UK is grass. Even those who didn't believe what they were seeing in March are now in no doubt!

This isn't just an issue for owners of rehab horses (whom I always send home with reams of nutritional info and who are bored rigid of me banging on about diet and grass!)...

...its not even just an issue for owners of barefoot horses (though problems with grass show up earlier barefoot than shod)... Its something all horse owners should be aware of.

Laminitis is a major danger for horses in the UK, with our mild, warm climate, high rainfall and extensive pasture - often carefully managed to yield the richest possible grass(!).  But way before laminitis, there are warning signs when horses become footy or sole sensitive - and this is the time when preventative measures are most useful and take effect most quickly.

Grazing and how to manage it - and your horse - is something which I know is a big issue for many owners, so I've put this quick table together. Of course, its simplistic, but it gives you an idea of some of the risk factors - for your horse and in your fields - and as a quick guide I hope its useful (if you click on it, you can see a larger version).

Basically, the more of the factors in "red" that apply to your grazing OR your horse, the higher the risk (not necessarily of laminitis but certainly enough to cause footiness) - and 2 or more are what I would class a fairly high risk.  This is based solely on my own experience and that of owners across the country, so its not infallible but the patterns are the ones I see and hear about year after year, in horse after horse. 
The more of the factors in "green" that you can introduce, the safer you can make things. I realise that some things you won't be able to change, but at least this gives you an idea of what may help.
I'm very fortunate at Rockley that we are in an area designated by the powers that be as "Severely Disadvantaged Upland" :-) In other words, land where no dairy cow would survive for more than five minutes, where the fields are too steep for intensive agriculture and where the climate is too cold for modern grass varieties - so, perfect for horses, then!

Even so, I would never turn horses out 24/7in spring and summer. After all, our long hours of daylight mean that today the sun rose at 4.30am and its still light at 9.30pm - that's an awfully long time for the grass to grow. So at the moment I am turning out at about 7-8pm and bringing horses in at about 7am to go onto the tracks. However, as well as limited turnout, I have the benefit of old pasture, organic management and a cool climate, which together makes for fairly "safe" grazing.

In your yard getting to a "safe", "green"state may be a fairly complex picture where you need to factor in the type of grazing, climate, your horse's health and exercise levels. If some of these factors are outside your control you could easily tip into the "red" and have a horse who becomes footy or even (at worst case) laminitic, so its not something you want to take lightly...

...BUT most UK yards are set up for horses to have at least some time at grass, and let's face it - the horses love it! There is also the fact that we all (me included!) enjoy seeing our horses in beautiful fields, happily grazing, with lots of space to move.
So what to do?
Of course you may be able to ensure that your horse is never footy or laminitic by completely removing all grass, and in extreme cases this maybe necessary, but that's a fairly drastic solution and one which could be far more draconian than you need.

Most owners who have barefoot horses keep them on "normal" livery yards, where they have more-or-less safe grass, more-or-less rigid rules about turn-out and horses who are more-or-less sensitive to grass. Most owners - often through trial and error - can develop a cost-effective, practical system which keeps their horse safe so don't despair, even if you have a few set-backs along the way.
Management options
To get their horses into the "green" and out of the "red" some owners use grazing muzzles, some ask their yards for night-time turnout, some use dry-lots or arenas for turn-out. Most feed a sensible mineral supplement (like Pro Balance, Pro Hoof or Equimins Meta Balance). Some balance minerals to their forage. Some use tracks, some (fortunate people!) don't need to make any changes. Those with horses who have serious metabolic disorders may find that drugs like pergolide or metformin are a big help.

As always, its a case of doing what is practical for you, at your yard, for your horse, seeing what you can achieve - and above all, listening to your horse.  There is rarely one solution - most often its putting together several good management options which make the difference and get you out of the "red" and back into the "green".

If you still aren't sure whether grass is the issue, either take your horse off grass for a few days or think back to how he/she was in January. If either made a big improvement to comfort levels then chances are its the grass...

Of course, if there are elements beyond your control and you can't stop your horse from being footy, its not the end of the world if you use boots or shoes for the spring and summer.  This is obviously a less practical option for horses who - like our rehab horses - have navicular/DDFT type problems, but if you have horse with good caudal hoof health, it can be a sensible short term solution.


ellajarvis said...

Brilliant article - thank you. I would love to be able to bring my mare in off the grass but as you stated this isn't always possible. Unfotunately here in Surrey grass livery is all I can afford (and that is at £270 a month!). However she is out on poor sandy pasture, not ideal but I certainly don't have the growth of grass that others do or I would have moved them paddocks again (my other paddock is still sparse 4 weeks later!).

She is still rock crunching and both myself and farrier keep a close eye on her. I am so glad I was pointed in the dirrection of your blog in the first place, we went barefoot and never looked back!

M's mum said...

What a fab article - thank you! I know heaps of people who would benefit from reading this, and a lot of them are already asking me questions about managing their horses differently - so I shall point them to this for sure. Thanks again!

Nic Barker said...

Thanks both :-) I wanted to find a way of breaking down the issues and (I hope) making them easier to understand and find solutions for...Fingers crossed its a help!

Nic Barker said...

Ella - great to hear about your mare - sounds like you've found a fantastic way to manage her!

Unknown said...

"Even those who didn't believe what they were seeing in March are now in no doubt!" This sums up our situation completely!

I remember looking out on muddy, bare fields and thinking "it's the grass?? really??!!!"
The last 2 weeks has proven to me, without a shadow of a doubt that, yes, it really is! I've seen the proof standing before my very eyes!

Thanks so much for this timely post Nic :)

Cristina said...

Just wanted to add that alot of livery yards when they talk about night turnout, put the horses out at 3 or 4pm and bring them in about 8am.

Not only will that be a longer grass exposure, it will take in when the sugars are high.

I go up after work and turnout myself between 7 an 9pm depending on work and if I'm riding after work.

Clare said...

I know people at my yard think I'm mad when I say my horse can't cope with the spring / summer grass! But he truely can't, really listen to your horse and remember you probably know him better than anyone else!

My boy can go footy and lame very quickly if he's not taken off the grass very quickly, but on the flipside he improves very quickly if he is.

His ACTH blood tests have just shown raised levels, so I'm not mad after all :-)

Debbie & Paddy said...

Thamks, what a comprehensive article - just what I needed! :o)

Nic Barker said...

**singing* especially for yoooou...!

Clare - always good to get confirmation you're not mad eh ;-)

Cristina - yes, definitely, and one to beware of...Afternoon grass sugars can be sky-high, as you say.

jenj said...

What a lovely article! It very nicely sums up the bits and pieces I've stuck together in my head.

Around here, it's hot, we've had no rain for a month, and the grass is stressed. IF the boys get to go out, it's for an hour between 6-7 am, just as the sun is coming up. The rest of the time they are on a dirt track. I figure it's the best possible option given all the red factors. So far, so good!

cptrayes said...

"I'm very fortunate at Rockley that we are in an area designated by the powers that be as "Severely Disadvantaged Upland" :-) In other words, land where no dairy cow would survive for more than five minutes, where the fields are too steep for intensive agriculture and where the climate is too cold for modern grass varieties - so, perfect for horses, then!"

Me too, and I can't graze mine between 9am and 7pm either, or they go sole sensitive.

Unknown said...

Great post, grass is not normally a problem for us here in SW France in summer, but we've had unusually high levels of rain this year...

lytha said...

this is an excellent post that i'll refer people to i'm sure: ) i've got three red factors. (24/7 turnout, fertilized, regularly mowed field, retired horse in no work). but i think i'm one of the lucky far: )

i'd like to buy some of those trace mineral supplements but i cannot find any in germany. can you point me in the right direction?

Nic Barker said...

Thanks Helen, and Lytha. Half the battle is being aware of the issue, then the management becomes much easier!

Lytha, you can find 2 of the supplement online, via Progressive Earth on ebay. I don't know if they would post to Germany but worth asking them. However, the minerals are made to balance what is commonly lacking in the UK so worth checking that the situation in your area is similar (try farm/agricultural outlets who are normally knowledgeable about mineral levels).