A Moment on the Lips, A Lifetime on the Hips

Grass growth in the UK has gone insane in the last month and there seems to be an unprecedented number of horses coming down with laminitis or being very much at risk of it.

The best tactic for weight management is to start early. But that’s easier said than done! Unfortunately I think until an owner has experienced Code Red; drastic weight loss or the dreaded laminitis itself, it’s all too easy to be complacent. Especially with our tendency to anthropomorphasise our horses. Plus, it only takes an unfortunate coincidence of a couple of equine rest days and warm, wet weather for grass to grow rapidly and obesity to occur.

About two months ago, a companion pony of one of my clients had his annual check up by the Blue Cross. They declared him to be obese and advised that he lost a significant amount of weight very quickly.

It was a case of being cruel to be kind. The Blue Cross representative recommended shutting the pony in the corral for half the day and using a track system. Initially, my clients were told to shut him in during the day, and out overnight, but after considering their current routine it was decided that it was easiest to have the pony in the corral overnight. Especially as their evening bucket feed could be used to tempt him into his prison.

It goes against what we all know about feeding horses little and often, but drastic steps were needed. Besides, there are a few tufts of grass or weeds for him to pick at overnight. I set up the track system, and I’m pleased with the routine that’s now in place.

Every couple of days, once fat pony is safely locked away in the evening, the Shire cross who, by no means thin, but happy to eat the new grass, gets given a foot or two more of long grass on the track. He eats that overnight and in the morning, fat pony is let out of the corral and he gallops around the track, throwing in some bucks for good measure, to inspect the new section. Of course he does get to eat a little bit of it, but give that he’s put some effort into going around the track and there’s only a little bit to nibble at around the rest of the track, he’s fine.

I’ve noticed a lot move movement from both horses whilst grazing just in the time I’ve been there, which can only be good for both of their overall fitness.

Another bonus is that the grass is plentiful and should last well into the autumn at the rate it’s being grazed down, which will give the winter paddock ample time to recover.

We’ve had to get creative recently with another pony and his forage management after the farrier notices some bruising on his toes. Whilst not laminitic, he also felt a bit “off” to ride so his haynets are double holed, being weighed so he doesn’t get any more than 1% of his body weight, being long reined for miles (and I mean miles as I’ve done a lot of it!), and then we’ve set up a track system on the barest section of the paddock. As this pony lives on his own he has a tendency to stand still, with minimal walking around. He’s currently shut in a corral overnight with small nets in different places to encourage him to wander around the area. Then I’ve told his owners to take his breakfast bucket to the far end of the L shape before letting him out of the corral in the morning. Then he will hopefully start trotting along the track to get breakfast. It’s not much but a bit more exercise than feeding him by the gate. Then he can have any hay put at feeding stations along the track during the day. When he’s not at quite such high risk of laminitis and is in more work then he can have the track lengthened by a couple of inches a day, and hopefully not need to be shut in the corral overnight.

It’s tough, and most owners don’t like the idea of starving their horse, but it is a case of the lesser of two evils – starvation or laminitis – and once you’re on top of their weight and diet it is easier to find a happy medium of a level of feeding which you as an owner feel comfortable with (using muzzles, track systems, soaked hay as preference to grass, a bucket feed) which doesn’t cause weight gain, alongside an exercise regime and daily routine which complements this so that your horse is happy, and in the right condition.

Haynets

Recently I was catching up with an old friend a few weeks ago and she was telling me about her daughters mare, who had recently been in hospital with a severe parasitic infection in both eyes.

The infection was caused by your every day black fly, which just goes to show how important it is to check out your horse`s eyes in summer and to provide them with a fly mask. Luckily, the mare pulled through.

The hospital that this horse stayed at for six weeks had a strict “no haynets” policy, due to the high incidence rate of horses being admitted due to haynet related incidents.

When a horse eats from a haynet long stalks of hay are precariously close to their eyes, and if there was a thick, or particularly rigid stalk then they could easily poke themselves in the eye. If some dust or seed was caught then an eye can easily become infected. An alternative problem is that the hay stalk can scratch the eye, which can cause an ulcer, which when left untreated can cause all sorts of problems.

My friend was telling me that the equine hospital feed hay on the floor, which I agree with as it is so much better for the horse`s respiratory system – dust is caught by mucus and gravity pulls it down the nasal passages, away from the lungs – feeding from the ground encourages correct muscular development. As a result, my friend has had a haybar fitted into her mare`s stable, and won`t be using haynets for her other horses. The filly isn`t allowed haynets anyway because she chews at them, unties them and then tries to tie herself up in them!

The hospital also recommends not using haynets when travelling horses. I can see their point – the trailer or lorry is a cramped environment so horses cannot escape any long stalks. Additionally, the movement of the vehicle can sway the haynet close to the horses eyes. Given all this, we should still remember that eating can help keep horses calm when travelling, and when you are travelling multiple horses it can stop bickering in the ranks. Perhaps it is better to use the haybags that are available, or small holed haynets, haylage or hay with soft/short stalks. I always tie my haynets to the front of the trailer, so that Otis has to reach forwards to eat; when it is tied next to his lead rope it is very close to his eyes and he has to twist to snatch a bite, which I think is detrimental to his balance. I would always travel him with hay though, as he gets worried by travelling and I feel eating helps destress him – I back up this theory by the fact that every time he travels with a haynet, eating happily, he arrives dry. When he leaves his hay, he is white with sweat.

I was watching Llani eating from his haynet soon after seeing my friend, and you could really see the jerking, snatching movements he made with his neck as he tugged the long stems out of the net. The next day I put Llani into Otis`s stable, with the haybar, and you could instantly see the more natural position of his eating. He held his neck relaxed, and chewed through the hay in a very calm way. There was no sudden jerking of his neck. I can only gather from this that eating from a pile of hay is much better physiologically for the horses than eating from a haynet, as they are less likely to tweak a muscle by the snatching motion and their eyes are further away from the hay stalks.

I`m not sure on other people`s feelings on haynets, but I think they should be used with discretion and when alternative options are available use them to reduce the risk of injury to the horse.