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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

A four-part series on the tale behind the good doer.

Part two:

In part one we explored how our native breeds have evolved and some of the challenges that modern management presents. In this blog we discuss different pasture types and how these compare to what our native breeds require.

Within modern management, it is increasingly common for horses to graze monoculture (single grass species) pastures, more suited to dairy cows and production livestock. This is a major factor suspected to contribute to obesity levels, as ponies would naturally have grazed meadows which featured a variety of grasses and browse, rather than single species pastures.

Broadly speaking, pasture type can be divided into four main categories, knowledge of which can help us to appreciate some of the differences between what horses have evolved to thrive on and what they are presented with in domestication.

Improved grassland has been managed to increase its productivity. These pastures are dominated by productive species such as ryegrass, and white clover. These species are designed to be more competitive and provide more calories per mouthful.

Semi-improved grassland has had some agricultural improvement (such as drainage or fertilisation) and is dominated by species such as ryegrass and cocksfoot.

Semi-natural (or unimproved) grassland is where grazing, cutting or burning prevents scrub and trees from becoming established but is otherwise not altered by human intervention. This type of grassland is species-rich and is usually dominated by less productive species such as fescues, along with sedges, rushes and mosses. Unfortunately, species-rich grassland is now relatively uncommon, however some good examples still exist, in places such as Exmoor and Dartmoor.

Degraded grassland is exactly as it sounds – grassland that has been mismanaged and become poached, over-grazed or under-grazed, dominated by weeds such as thistles, nettles and docks. This is an all too common sight with horse pastures and is undesirable, even for the good doer.

The majority of grassland grazed by domesticated horses in the UK would be classed as improved or semi-improved, containing more productive species such as ryegrass. Ryegrass is an example of a species that has been continually ‘improved’ to be more productive for farm animals such as cows and sheep and as such can be one of the least suitable swards (area of grass) for meeting the needs of the native pony, the species specifically bred for high energy (high sugar) values.

Less productive species such as fescues and timothy are better for the native horse or pony. These species accumulate lower levels of sugar and therefore tend to be lower in calories than their more productive counterparts. These grass species would be more similar to what ponies have adapted to thrive on – a larger quantity of lower quality fibre alongside other roughages.

Unfortunately it is not as straight forward as just seeding different grass species and letting them grow! These lower productivity (lower sugar) grasses – being less competitive – can struggle to thrive if not well adapted to the growing area. As such, seeking the right advice on a seed mix is crucial. Alternatively, management practices, such a turning out at certain times of day or making use of shady pastures and cloudy days can be employed to reduce sugar intake, thereby making it more suitable for our natives (see part 4 of this series for more details).

Join me in part 3 where we look at the potential impact of over-rugging on our good doers.

 

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

First Aid for Laminitis

 

You think that your horse has laminitis- HELP!

It can be difficult to know what to do for the best, and no doubt everyone on your yard will want to give their opinion, leaving you with plenty of conflicting advice. With that in mind here are nine practical steps to take if you suspect that your horse has laminitis

 

  1. Call your vet

It’s essential to call the vet. This sounds very obvious but sadly so many owners think that that they will ‘wait and see’ during a bout of laminitis,  or that it’s normal for their horse or pony to become a bit ‘footsore’. Don’t forget that horses are prey animals and will generally try and conceal lameness or injury, so a ‘foot sore’ pony could actually be in a lot of pain. Some owners think they should call their farrier, and although the farrier is an essential part of the recovery process they cannot diagnose or offer pain relief like your vet can.

 

     2.Don’t be tempted to ‘self-medicate’

Do not give any medication without speaking to your vet first. Many owners have some nonsteroidal anti inflammatory medication such as phenylbutazone at their yard, but this should never be given without consulting with your vet first. Often medication that has been kept has expired, or hasn’t been stored correctly. Your vet will have a variety of pain relief options, these will be faster acting and more effective than an out of date sachet of bute.

 

     3.Remove the horse from the pasture

With any suspected case of laminitis it is essential to limit any further damage to the laminae by reducing movement. The horse or pony should be removed from the field, and stabled immediately. Due to the painful nature of the condition the horse should be allowed to walk at their own pace, however long that takes. It may be appropriate to travel the horse in a low trailer if the field is a longer distance from the stables. If no stabling is available a small pen will need to be created, within the field to reduce movement, or you could use a field shelter.

     4.Make the horse comfortable

A horse suffering from a bout of laminitis will be experiencing a lot of discomfort, and stabling on a deep bed of shavings is ideal. The horse needs to be able to dig it’s hooves into the bedding material to provide pain relief, and the deep bed must be continued right up to the door of the stable. Some owners like to use sand but this must be dry and not too tightly compacted, and cardboard bedding could also be used, the bedding material just needs to be able to mould around the hoof and provide support to the frog.

 

     5.Keep the horse calm

Keeping the horse calm, quiet and still is essential while you wait for the vet, and also in the short term management of the condition. It is sensible to ensure that the horse has a companion close by, it will help to keep them as relaxed as possible. If your horse is stressed, your vet may be able to provide a mild sedative to settle them. 

 

     6.Don’t starve them

The laminitic horse should not be starved, and this is a common misconception about caring for a horse or pony with laminitis. They do need to be fed an appropriate diet which is lower in non structural carbohydrates. Your vet will help you to devise a suitable diet to help manage laminitis, but soaking hay is an effective way to reduce the sugar content. Hay can be soaked in cold water for several hours, but for a more immediate option warm water can be used, soaking hay for 30 minutes to one hour to make it a safer forage choice for the laminitic horse or pony. A Trickle Net is an excellent way to feed soaked and rationed forage, providing more hours nibble time and a welcome distraction from boredom and pain. 

     7.Easy reach

It is essential that both hay and water are easy for the horse to get to, as limiting movement and reducing any further pain is the priority. For horses who like to look out over the door, keeping hay and water close to the door will limit the to and fro and help rest those painful feet. 

 

     8.Frog support

While you wait for your vet to arrive another practical step you could take is to provide your horse with some frog support, this would be particularly helpful if you aren’t able to stable the horse on a thick bed of shavings or sand. The idea is to help the horse take more weight through the frog and take pressure of the wall of the hoof, thus relieving the laminae.

You can purchase specialist frog supports, and these may be part of your horse’s recovery plan. (Maybe keep some in your first aid kit.) However you can use a roll of vet wrap (unrolled) on the frog and simply tape it to the hoof. This will provide the same benefits in an emergency situation.

 

     9.Be patient

Laminitis is a tricky condition to manage, but there are many success stories of horses who have made a brilliant recovery from this condition. You might find that the recovery process is longer (and more frustrating) than you expect so do be patient. There is lots of help and support out there, and many horse owners are in the same boat as you. Sharing tips and ideas for recovery is always positive, but beware the myths and always give your vet a call if you’re unsure of anything. Many owners are reluctant to call the vet thinking that a visit will always be required, but most vets are very happy to take a quick call and guide your decisions for horses already under their care. 

 

I hope that you have found this article helpful, remember laminitis can affect horses and ponies of all ages and sizes, and it is essential to call the vet if you suspect that your horse is suffering with this condition.

 

If you’d like to learn more about laminitis, and how to manage this condition you can take part in the first ‘National Laminitis Awareness Day’ which I am running on 10th July 2019. You can take part in live web chats, finding out more about laminitis, feeding the laminitic horse, underlying conditions. There will be free factsheets to download, and I’d love you to take part by sharing pictures of your horse with the hashtag #lamiaware.

It’s going to be an action packed day.

 

You can register for more details at the link below

http://eepurl.com/giIXx5

Nicola
Nicola Kinnard-Comedie MSc, BHSAI Int. SM
Owner and founder of NKC Equestrian Training
0782 4326245
 

About the author

Nicola Kinnard-Comedie owns and runs NKC Equestrian Training, a training company providing Online and One day Horse First Aid Courses across the UK, together with qualified vets. These courses and workshops are designed for horse owners to update their knowledge on preventative health care, wounds, colic and infectious diseases, and have been developed together with vets. As with with human first aid recommendations for Horse First Aid change over the years, and these courses are the perfect opportunity to ask the vet lots of questions and enjoy a relaxed day of training, or you can learn at your own pace with the online course.