Q: My horse is an easy keeper and tends toward the heavy side, and I am concerned about him being overweight. He’s stalled overnight and receives grass hay and a low-starch ration balancer. During the day, he’s on pasture with other horses. We don’t have a dirt turnout available, and I like the fact that he’s out during the day and able to socialize with other horses. Is using a grazing muzzle on my horse a good idea? If so, how do I introduce it?
A: Kudos to you for being proactive about your horse’s weight. Certainly it sounds as though the unlimited grazing availability most of the day could result in undesirable weight gain, and grazing muzzles can be very useful in these situations. When fitted correctly, a grazing muzzle helps restrict grass intake but does not completely prevent the horse from eating.
Pasture turnout offers horses many benefits, but it also come with drawbacks. Turnout allows for increased movement. This is important not only for gastrointestinal health, but also helps maintain low-level fitness and increases calorie utilization, an important consideration for the overweight individual. Group turnout allows for social interactions between horses that’s not possible in most stall environments. However, turnout in pasture can result in large and typically uncontrolled intakes of forage, leading to weight gain and its associated health risks of equine metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and laminitis in some individuals.
Research shows that using grazing muzzles on ponies that were stabled but turned out on pasture for three hours resulted in an 83% decrease in pasture intake. Other studies have found decreases of just under 80%. Being on pasture, especially in a group situation, has a number of benefits, especially for horses otherwise housed in stalls.
Grazing muzzles are therefore a useful tool that can allow a horse or pony to receive the benefits associated with turnout while at the same time limiting the potential for undesirable weight gain.
Fitting a grazing muzzle correctly is very important, and numerous styles are available on the market. Be sure to follow the fit instructions for the brand you ultimately choose. Pay attention to areas that might become rubbed by a muzzle, for example the ears, points of the cheek bones, the bridge of the nose, and on top of the muzzle. Be sure that the muzzle is not constantly touching the horse’s mouth. There should be a gap of about an inch from the end of your horse’s mouth to the muzzle. Also check that your horse can comfortably open his mouth while wearing the muzzle.
To introduce the muzzle to your horse takes patience and a positive attitude on your part. If you approach the situation with the energy that you are about to do a terrible thing to your horse, something you feel guilty about, you can guarantee that your horse will pick up on this sentiment and be wary of the muzzle. How your horse reacts will depend largely on his personality and temperament.
Always start slowly. Using the principles of pressure and release (negative and positive reinforcement), place the muzzle alongside your horse’s head and when he is relaxed remove it. Do this until he appears completely at ease. Then progress to putting the muzzle over his nose. Again remove it after a couple of seconds and reward relaxed behavior. Gradually increase the length of time the muzzle is over the nose and eventually completely secure the muzzle on your horse’s head for a short period of time. I like to reward the horse by feeding treats through the muzzle, which shows the horse that they can eat with the muzzle on, but other rewards work well, too.
Take your horse out to hand graze in the muzzle. Be aware that the height of the grass is a vital component of grazing muzzle success. Grass that’s too short won’t protrude through the muzzle far enough for the horse to eat, and this can really annoy and frustrate some horses. Overly long grass is also hard to eat because it bends over and doesn’t protrude through the holes in the muzzle very easily. Consider how long your pasture grass is before turning a muzzled horse out on it.
Once your horse is safely and happily hand grazing in the muzzle for extended periods of time, you can contemplate turning him out independently. Be sure to check the pasture area carefully for areas where a muzzle might get caught and fence off any unsafe areas. How long you leave the muzzle on varies by situation, but it shouldn’t be left on for longer than 10 to 12 hours.
Keep in mind that once removed your horse might indulge in compensatory eating if on pasture. Horses are capable of eating large amounts of their daily forage intake in a relatively short period of time. Therefore, removing the muzzle while still on pasture might undo all the hard work of restricting access if your horse essentially binge eats on removal.
Be sure to monitor your horse’s behavior and note if you see any uncharacteristic changes as a result of wearing the muzzle. Also keep track of his body weight and condition so that you can adjust feed and pasture access as necessary to maintain ideal condition.
A grazing muzzle can be a very powerful tool to have to hand when managing the horse that tends to be overweight on pasture. It might just be his ticket to continued access to free-roaming movement and interaction with his herd.