Editor's note: In today's horse management scenario, we often are raising horses on pastures developed to fatten cattle, therefore it is no wonder that our easy keepers need less time grazing. Restricting horses to dry lots for specific amounts of time can help some horses, but others need the exercise they get from grazing. Unfortunately, many horse owners feel that putting a grazing muzzle on a horse is somehow unkind, when in reality it is unkind to let the horse get obese. Our friends at Kentucky Equine Research discuss the point of whether a muzzled horse can be given a few hours of "reprieve" and allowed to graze unencumbered by a muzzle. Research has shown that horses can "make up" for lost time grazing, consuming more forage in a shorter period of time than a horse that is grazing 24/7. As stable managers, we can use this research to help our clients understand that giving the horse a "break" from the grazing muzzle isn't a good idea.
You have an overweight horse, and you’ve started using a grazing muzzle any time he’s in the pasture. It seems to be working because the weight tape indicates he’s actually lost a few pounds in the last month! But you feel so sorry for him because you know he doesn’t like wearing the grazing muzzle. Should you give him a short period of free grazing each afternoon? After all, how much could he eat in a couple of hours?
The surprising answer is that he can eat an unbelievable amount in only a few hours, most likely minimizing or eliminating his rate of weight loss and possibly setting him up for colic or another digestive system upset. When researchers at North Carolina State University designed a study to check pasture intake, they found that horses with restricted grazing times were able to eat almost three times as much grass per hour as those with full-time turnout.
In the study, horses that were allowed only a few hours a day on pasture were provided with hay the rest of the time, so their avid grazing behavior should not have been motivated by intense hunger. Fresh grass is appealing to horses, and they will make the best use of abundant green forage even if hay has been available.
The most effective way to help obese horses lose weight is to restrict intake of dietary energy while gradually increasing exercise. If this program is to be effective, owners need to resist the urge to treat their horses to breaks in the schedule. This is important any time, but is especially critical during periods of lush pasture growth. Although it may seem cruel to leave that grazing muzzle on, it’s in the horse’s best interest in the long run.