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In part 3 we consider grazing and what our options are for the good doer.

While it is obvious when we look at a field of lush, rich, green grass that this is unlikely to be suitable for good doers, is the alternative of very short cropped grass the best alternative, or perhaps something in between?
Firstly, it’s important to understand that there are a couple of factors here that we are aiming to control, the first being overall quantity and the second being sugar levels and subsequently the potential for more calories. When managing the good doer, both factors should be considered.
While we can strive to do the best by our equine friends when it comes to grass intake, it is very rarely completely black and white, although there are some fundamental scientific facts we can base our management on, grey areas still exist which can muddy the waters. Management must not only consider the facts below but also the individual horse or pony involved.

In order to understand the reasons behind suitability of different grass lengths, we need to consider where the nutrients are stored within grass and how we can gauge grass intake.

 

How much grass does a horse eat?

Research suggests that horses and ponies can eat anywhere between 1.5 – 5.2% dry matter of their bodyweight per day. As a rough guide, using an average of 3% bodyweight, a 500kg horse could consume 15kg dry matter of grass in a 24 hour period (on good grass), this is just over 0.6kg per hour. This highlights the very real danger of horses consuming excess calories from grass alone. As a general rule, grass will always provide more nutrients than hay or haylage so, if the grass is good it’s likely that the horse’s energy demands will be partially, if not fully, satisfied (or exceeded) by what he grazes each day.

During the process of photosynthesis, grass creates sugar (sucrose, glucose and fructose), required for growth, and any excess is converted into storage carbohydrate. This sugar can be referred to in a number of ways: one being non-structural carbohydrates (NSC), which is the simple sugars, fructan and starch fraction of the plant. A term more commonly used in pasture analysis, is the term water soluble carbohydrate (WSC), which encompasses simple sugars and fructans.
UK grass species store excess sugar (produced by photosynthesis) as fructan, while those adapted to more tropical climes store the majority as starch. UK grass species must have the genetic potential to produce high levels of WSC in order to be productive throughout a long grazing season and a cold winter.
When it comes to where sugars are stored, WSCs are generally more abundant in the stem and leaf sheaths than in the blades of grass; levels tending to increase with plant maturity, peaking during flowering and thereafter declining. Over 30% of fructans can occur in the tops of mature plants, especially at flowering (going to head), but levels remain lower if the plant is not allowed to head.
Unsurprisingly, we notice a preference in grazing behaviour that can be linked to sugar storage, selection for grazing being closely linked with WSC content, making reducing WSC intake arguably even more challenging!
In some conditions, WSC levels in grass can reach up to 50% (dry matter)! This is significantly more than grass hay or haylage which can reach ~20%. Having knowledge of when these sugar levels are likely to be at their peak may help to inform better management for good doers and those prone to problems such as laminitis.

While these figures can sound scarily high, it is important to remember that while undesirable for some, sugar is by no means unnatural for horses. In fact, many working horses, of healthy body condition, tolerate sugar well. However, for those requiring a low sugar and ultimately low calorie diet, management of grazing is essential, although it is important to note that a completely sugar- free diet is an almost impossible goal. The best that can be achieved is to minimise sugar intake from forage (grass, hay, haylage), which is typically the largest contributor of sugar in the diet.
Sugar levels can vary between seasons. In the UK, there is increased potential for a rise in horses WSC intake during spring when soil temperatures reach 5°C, and again in the autumn. While there is an increase in the level of WSC during this period, the potential for increased intake is more likely linked to an increased potential intake of grass overall. When it comes to considering WSC levels, while certain species can accumulate more than others and certain times of year may see a peak in level, WSC concentrations are more closely associated with environmental conditions.

 

What impacts the WSC level in grass?

There are many factors that influence the level of WSCs in grass and the same grass pasture can vary from year to year and even at different points throughout the day! While there are no absolute guarantees, considering the following factors, which increase WSC levels may help to identify times of greatest potential intake. It is important to note that a lot of these factors have a common theme running through them – stress. When grass is under stress of any kind, WSC levels accumulate.

  • Temperature: Cold nights and bright sunny days. The risk of WSC accumulation increases during spring when grass is growing, when the night time temperature drops below 5°C and during the winter months, immediately after a hard frost or when grass is snow covered. In these conditions the plant is unable to use the WSCs for growth, which can lead to accumulation. The risk increases further when these colder nights are coupled with bright sunny days.
  • Reduced soil fertility
  • Water stress e.g. drought
  • Sub-lethal herbicide application
  • Presence of heavy metals in soil
  • Time of day (afternoon/early evening): when the right environmental conditions allow,WSC levels will rise during the day (sugars accumulating as a product of photosynthesis)peaking late afternoon and decreasing once the sun sets. The plant then uses these sugarsovernight for growth, and as such, levels tend to be at their lowest first thing in the morning(typically 3am to 10am). Where grass has undergone ‘stress’ e.g. drought or night frost, thisprocess of converting sugar to fibre cannot occur, meaning the grass may still be high in sugar come the morning.· High WSC accumulating species: e.g. Ryegrasses
  • Stage of growth: flower/development
  • Light intensity: Sunlight and bright days! High light intensity is thought to increase WSC levels in pasture, low light intensity is thought to do the opposite.
  • Over-grazing and under-grazing: Over-grazing and exposing the crown of the grass causes ‘stress’ to the plant resulting in increased WSC levels. However, under-grazing and allowing grass to ‘go to head’ also results in potential for higher WSC intake.

Management tips for reducing WSC intake:
– Avoid turnout on frosty bright mornings during the winter months or bright days in the spring/autumn where overnight temperatures have dropped below 5°C.
– When daytime temperature rises above 30°C, respiration increases faster than photosynthesis and subsequently WSC content is reduced. As such these periods of increased growth may present opportunities for reduced WSC turnout.
– Turn-out early morning or late evening (bearing in mind exceptions noted above).
– Turn-out on cloudy days or in shady paddocks where there is less photosynthesis, so sugars do not accumulate as quickly. It is for this very reason, that wooded areas (excluding trees which can pose risk such as sycamores and oak) can be very effective turnout areas where calorie/WSC intake is trying to be reduced.
– Don’t be too focused on grass species. Cultivating a pasture comprising of low WSC- accumulating grass species is harder than it might seem and even then, environmental conditions and management are likely to have a larger bearing on actual WSC intake. The additional challenge is that lower accumulating WSC species are often associated with lower productivity, so choosing a grass species that is well adapted to the growing area and seeking the right advice on seed mix is crucial. Management practises to minimise WSC intake would still apply if a lower WSC accumulating species is achieved, while avoiding plant stress by enhancing soil fertility and moisture level, will also help.

So what is the problem with short grass?

We know that when grass is under stress it is higher in WSCs. So, where grass is grazed close but importantly not to the point where the grass is permanently damaged, the horse is repeatedly taking the newest growth (which is under stress) and therefore likely to be high in WSCs and ultimately calories (and low in fibre). However, this is less likely to be the case where the area grazed is so small that the horse is grazing faster than the grass is growing, which will result in permanent damage to the sward and ultimately degraded bare pasture.

So is longer grass the answer?

In short, no. While longer, older grass is typically higher in fibre and lower in WSC (providing it has not gone to head), the horse is able to take larger mouthfuls and therefore a much greater quantity overall as compared to the shorter grass. Therefore, it is completely conceivable that the same amount of calories/energy (and WSC) could be consumed, therefore potentially presenting a similar risk. In fact, it could be argued that this type of grazing actually presents more risk in terms of overall calorie consumption due to the likely larger quantity.

So what is the answer?!

It is really down to the individual. We know that turning out for a shorter period of time can lead to compensatory grazing (the horse/pony eating more grass in less time!) and is therefore ineffective, so what are our options?

One option would be to graze close but not to the point of sward damage. This can reduce overall intake through reducing bite size (essentially like a grazing muzzle) BUT this could come at the risk of not meeting minimum fibre requirements and crucially not satisfying the horse’s appetite (which is linked to dry matter intake rather than number of calories) – resulting in a hungry horse! Long term grazing in this manner can also compromise dentition (causing excessive wear to the front teeth). If you decide to keep your horses under this management (or have little choice in the matter) ensure that you supplement this with a high fibre (late cut hay/haylage potentially alongside straw, (at a maximum 30% of the forage ration)) to help meet requirements and satisfy appetite.

Another option is to remove grazing from the picture altogether. Arguably the easiest way to control intake, by removing the main factor which is difficult to regulate. You can then pair turnout on a bare or woodchip paddock with a suitable low calorie forage source such as late cut forage, ideally soaked and or steamed.

In both of the above management scenarios, Trickle Nets can be used to increase chew time and mimic grazing.

A grazing muzzle is another alternative and despite not quite conforming to that picturesque idea of ponies grazing naturally in the field, can achieve something close to what we are after – opportunity to burn some calories by promoting movement and a trickle feeding of food through the system enabled through essentially restricting bite size. Be sure to introduce these gradually and adhere to best practise regarding appropriate length of grass for use and maximum duration of wear.

Other methods of restriction such as strip grazing and mixed grazing are available but don’t work for all, a lot of these systems still enabling intakes which far exceed requirements of many leisure horses and ponies.
If using any management that incorporates grazing, try and also consider the environmental
conditions and let these inform your day to day management. Also consider compensatory grazing. If grass intake is restricted using a grazing muzzle, for example, which cannot be used for more than 12 hours, the remaining 12 hours will need to be spent in a stable/dry lot to avoid compensatory grazing.

Pasture and/or forage is likely to be the main source of sugar in most horses’ diets and while some can tolerate this, others may need their intake restricting whether for specific health concerns or to moderate behaviour or energy levels. Grass pasture is undoubtedly one of the most natural feed sources for horses however it is important to consider how it has changed since the horse’s evolution and therefore, should be constantly reassessed as part of the horse’s diet.

 

Briony Witherow MSc RNutr. FHEA
Practical Equine Nutrition
Consultancy in Equine Nutrition
Tel. 07908 984 034

So it’s 2019, and January is typically a time that us humans go on a bit of a health kick. I don’t know about you but I’m certainly trying to add in some more exercise and steering myself towards more fruit and vegetables.

But what about your horse?

Why not make 2019 the year to give your horse a health kick…..

Here are some simple steps you can follow to help your horse be healthier and happier in 2019.

 

  1. Is your horse the correct weight?

Horses carrying excess weight are prone to a variety of health problems (just like humans), including an increased risk of laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome, joint disease and reduced performance.

Knowing how much your horse weighs is very helpful, as this will ensure that you are providing the correct dosage of wormer and that you aren’t overloading a lorry or trailer when travelling your horse. In conjunction with body condition scoring your horse this will help you establish if your horse is overweight or not.

How to weigh your horse

You can use a weight tape, but this is generally quite inaccurate method as the calculations that weightapes are based on are taken from a 500kg Thoroughbred type of horse. It is a convenient, and low cost method and it is a useful way to monitor your horse’s weight on an ongoing basis, and it is certainly better than nothing.

The most accurate method is to use a weighbridge, which is basically a giant set of bathroom scales for your horse. Most veterinary practices have these at the clinic, or you can arrange for a set to be brought to your yard either via a feed company or some independent nutritionists have these as well.

 

Body Conditioning Scoring

Body Condition Scoring is simply assessing the amount of fat covering in specific bony landmarks on the horse. You work your way along the horse assessing the crest, the side of the neck, behind the shoulder, the ribs, the rump and above the tail and give each site a score out of 9, with an ideal score being 5.

If your horse is consistently scoring 6 or 7, or even 8 in some of these areas then it becomes very clear that your horse needs to lose some weight. Just like humans horses will lay down fat in different areas, and as an owner it is easy to be fooled into thinking that your horse isn’t overweight because you can feel it’s ribs. In some horses the rib area might score a 5 but the other areas might be a 7. This just means that the horse is still overweight, but that they are carrying this excess weight in different areas.

Be honest when body condition scoring your horse, can you really feel the the underlying structures easily or are you applying lots of pressure so that you can?

Once you have assessed the weight and condition for your horse you can see if your horse needs to lose weight, or simply maintain its current weight. If your horse needs to lose weight winter is actually an ideal time to do this. Remember seasonal weight loss is perfectly normal, and in ‘good doer’ types it should be encouraged. Try using less rugs, or no rugs and soaking hay as a great way to get your horse’s weight under control before the calorific Spring grass arrives.

  1. Use it or lose it- does your horse get enough exercise?

Horses are designed to be moving around and ‘trickle feeding’ for around 18 hours a day. Modern management means that they are often kept in small stables for anything from 8- 24 hours a day, and if stabled like this they can only eat what and when they are given.

Keeping your horse moving is so important for their physical health, and their mental wellbeing. Allowing sufficient exercise and turnout time will keep healthy movement of the guts, essential to help prevent winter colic, will reduce stiffness and will also keep your horse more ‘rideable’. Hopping onto a fresh horse who hasn’t left the stable for a few days on a frosty morning can mean that you are in for a bumpy ride!

The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 outlines Five Freedoms which all animals must be offered under British Law. These are:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

Horses who don’t receive sufficient turnout are, in my opinion not able to express normal behaviour such as grazing, grooming with other horses and physical play behaviours such as bucking and rearing which we all see our horses do when they are out in the field. Likewise horses who don’t have the opportunity to move around enough, whether that is through exercise or turnout may not be free from pain because they might becoming stiff and uncomfortable when stabled.

During the winter months it can be very difficult to turn your horse out as much you might like to. Livery yard rules might mean that the horses are stabled more, your horse might suffer from mud fever, or very bad weather could all reduce turnout time.

So what can you do to keep your horse moving?

  • Turnout in a school or arena if it isn’t possible to turn your horse out in the field
  • Stable in a larger space such a ‘pen’ in a barn
  • Pole work – simply walking over some ground poles in the arena, or riding over some challenging pole patterns this is a great way to encourage straightness and inject some fun into your schooling. Pole work can be just as useful completed in hand, and working your horse in-hand can be a great time saver.
  • Make your hacking count- working up hills, performing simple lateral movements (when safe to do so) will add extra training to your hacking programs.
  • In-hand work – as well as working over poles in hand lunging and long reining are very useful ways to keep your horse active and mentally engaged.
  • Use of a horse walker can also provide a helpful ‘leg-stretch’ for your horse if turnout is limited.

 

  1. Have they got a balanced diet?

Deciding what to feed your horse can be really challenging. There are so many products on the market, friends, yard staff and trainers will all have an opinion, and there is a lot of conflicting advice online.

Two key points you might like to consider are;

Does your horse receive all the nutrients he/she requires?

Feeding an overweight horse is difficult as you only want to give a very small amount of feed to limit the calorific intake, but this can mean that the horse is not receiving all the protein and vitamin and minerals it requires.  

Do you feed the recommended amount of the feed? If you look at the back of the bag of feed you will see how much your horse should receive per day to meet it’s recommended daily amount of specific nutrients such as protein and essential vitamins and minerals. This is probably more quantity of feed that most horses actually need however.

To provide a balanced diet, without excessive calories, you might want to consider feeding a ‘balancer’ which is designed to be fed in a small quantity, rather than just providing a handful of a regular mix or cube product for your horse.

  1. Have you got the right horse for the job?

As part of recommendations for having a healthier happier horse in 2019 I think it is also worth highlighting how some horses are just not suited to particular yards, training regimes, equestrian disciplines and even owners.

If you have a horse who seems very stressed, or doesn’t enjoy their work maybe it is worth considering what you can change. Moving yards can be a big upheaval but horses can have such personality changes in different environments. Some horses love the hustle and bustle of a busy yard, others are happier in a small quiet yard. Likewise if your horse is a happy hacker and your ideal is to school most days then perhaps you need to see what you can alter? Maybe schooling on hacks would provide the best of both worlds for you and your horse.

Over the years I have met many lovely horses who were not thriving due to the wrong job or an environment that didn’t suit them. Some horses love living out, many enjoy the comfort of their stable. Yes of course you can train and condition a horse to accept a particular environment or work pattern, but ultimately knowing what suits your horse is key to having a happy horse

 

Wishing you every success and happiness with your horse in 2019. You can learn more about keeping your horse healthy and happy at one of our Horse First Aid Courses just sign up at the link below for more details of a course near you

http://eepurl.com/dxH6b9

Nicola

http://www.nkcequestrian.com

Nicola Kinnard-Comedie MSc, BHSAI Int. SM
07824326245

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