Easter is always exciting as a horse owner, the clocks have changed and it’s four full horsey days with plenty of Easter eggs thrown in for good measure. With Easter falling on a different date each year it’s a bit pot luck what the weather will bring, I’ve certainly got sunburnt at Easter, and I’m pretty sure we’ve had snow as well.
As with the Christmas holidays veterinary practices often report an increase in call outs either over or immediately after the Easter break. So what can you do to keep your horse happy and healthy over the long bank holiday weekend?
- Stick to the routine
As a hard working horse owner an extended weekend break means it’s really tempting to turn the alarm clock off and have a slower start in the morning. However no-one told your horse this, and it is important that we try and stick to a normal routine as much as possible, particularly for horses who are stabled. Stabling horses means that they are 100% reliant on humans for all their fibre needs, which is a far cry from the natural ‘foraging and roaming’ behaviour pattern they are designed for. It is essential for both physiological and psychological benefits that horses can eat ‘little and often’ and slowing their intake of hay or haylage is a great way to replicate their natural eating behaviours in a modern environment. Make sure you’re using your Trickle Nets!
Now the clocks have changed many horse owners will be planning to turn their horses out for longer periods of time, or maybe moving to 24-7 turnout. It can be particularly tempting to turn your horse out for the long weekend over Easter to make life easier. Winter is a long slog for horse owners and the thought of no mucking out is a very exciting proposition, but what is best for your horse?
As every owner knows horse’s are creatures of habit, and it is sensible to make any management changes gradually over several weeks. Vets often report a rise in colic cases when horses become suddenly stabled during snowy weather, or over the Christmas holiday period due to the change from grass to more hay, and horses drinking less water.
Suddenly allowing your horse more field time doesn’t give the microflora in the hindgut time to adjust to more grass, and the increase in water content from the grass can both result in loose droppings or even diarrhea. Which leads nicely into suggestion number two…
- Limit the grass
Overweight horses and ponies will quickly ingest far too much grass, as hormonal changes mean that their ‘off switch’ effectively doesn’t work, which can result in digestive upsets, colic or trigger the onset of laminitis. Ensuring your horse can have all the benefits of lots of turn out without excessive grass consumption can be difficult, but there are plenty of steps you can try …
- Grazing muzzle
I personally think that grazing muzzles are a very useful tool for managing the overweight horse, or native pony. They allow you to turn the horse out, but grass intake is limited. Yes they might not look that pretty, and yes it can take a bit of trial and error to find the best fit for your horse but I think that these are certainly worth persevering with.
- Track system
You will find plenty of suggestions online about creating a ‘track system’ for your horse, but the principle is to provide less grass and more exercise by sectioning a ‘walkway’ section around the outside of a field. This can be quite a basic construction, or be specially designed to cover a large area, and hay can be provided as necessary.
- Provide ‘safer’ grass
Although this is a longer term solution, and might be beyond your control at a local livery yard providing access to more appropriate grazing is one of the best ways you can keep your horse turned out as much as possible. So many horses are turned out on former dairy pastures which are sown predominantly with rye grass, and have been heavily fertilised. This is ideal for cows to consume, after all farmers want maximum milk yield per cow, but not at all suitable for the modern leisure horse. Creating a turnout space based on meadow grass, containing more appropriate grass species such as fescues, timothy grass, cocksfoot and crested dogstail would allow your horse access to the right grass, preventing weight gain and helping to reduce laminitis.
- Grass free turnout time
If the none of the above options are suitable for you and your horse is there a way of providing some time without grass? Maybe there is a safe part of the yard that can be fenced off, or a lunge pen or arena that could be used to create a turnout space free from grass.
- Consider your horse’s fitness levels
The bank holiday weekend is the perfect time for longer hacks, a sponsored ride or maybe a cross country schooling session. However before you get to carried away it is sensible to think about how fit your horse is, and how much weight and condition they are carrying. Is it fair to ask an overweight unfit horse to puff around a hilly sponsored ride without sufficient preparation? How would you cope if you had to run a 5km race without an training?
If we have a warm bank holiday weekend (fingers crossed) overweight unfit horses can be at risk of heat stress when asked to suddenly work harder than normal with lots of cantering and jumping.
So if you have some exciting adventures planned for your horse over the Easter break try and be consistent with riding and exercise between now and then. Long slow hacks will help build up fitness levels and consider what steps you can put in place to help your horse slim down if they are overweight. Using less or no rugs, slowing down forage consumption and limiting hard feed are all sensible steps to help your horse stay healthy.
- Keep an eye on ‘normal’
The best way to keep your horse healthy is to know what is ‘normal’ for your horse, this way you will spot ‘abnormal’, i.e. the early onset of illness or disease much quicker. Owners can assess ‘normal’ by measuring vital signs such as temperature, pulse and respiration rates and establishing a baseline recording for each of these signs can be very helpful.
Many horse owners have never taken their horse’s temperature, which is actually surprisingly straightforward to do, although do take care whilst doing this.
Another quick and easy way to check ‘normal’ for your horse is to keep an eye on the number and consistency of droppings that your horse produces. This is something that most owners would be automatically noting when mucking out each day, but over the holiday break it is easy to be in a hurry, or perhaps you have someone else looking after your horse. A reduction in faecal output is a cause for concern
The need for speed ….
Many horse owners will delay calling their vet out over the long weekend, hoping that the problem can wait until after the bank holiday. However seeking prompt veterinary assistance will result in a better prognosis for your horse, and is generally the most cost effective option. Cases of colic, eye conditions or wounds involving joints or tendons are just too serious to ‘wait and see’. If in doubt just call the practice and speak to the vet on call, they will be more than happy to chat to you on the phone.
If you would like to learn more about keeping your horse healthy and happy then why not consider joining our online Horse First Aid Course. The course has been developed together with vets, and includes access to videos, slides, over ten hours of audio content recorded with vet and a printed learning pack.
Email Nicola (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more details.
Visit the website for details of my courses at http://www.nkcequestrian.com