Spring Turnout Tips for Horses

Proper spring turnout management and monitoring body condition are important steps to keeping your horse healthy.

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Spring Turnout Tips for Horses
Spring brings an increased risk for several health conditions, including laminitis and insulin resistance, in all horses on pasture. | Photo: iStock

As the seasons transition from winter to spring, it’s time to start thinking about horses’ nutritional needs, as well as changes in the forage available to horses grazing on pasture. The spring also brings an increased risk for several health conditions, including laminitis and insulin dysregulation, in all horses grasing pasture. Here are some spring turnout tips to help keep your horses healthy as temperatures rise.

Spring Turnout Management

  • First, it’s important to understand the significance of the nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC, a measurement of sugar and starch levels in forages and grains) component of grass. Researchers know that an overabundance of NSCs in a horse’s diet has the potential to cause problems, including colic or laminitis. (Editor’s note: For more a detailed description of NSCs, see Sugars and Starches: They’re Not All Bad!) Therefore, when reintroducing green grass to a horse after the winter, it’s important to consider NSC concentrations in pasture grass.
  • Researchers know that NSC levels are highest in early spring grasses, and studies in England have shown that putting a grazing muzzle on a horse or pony can decrease pasture intake by up to 80%. Thus, it’s advisable to use a grazing muzzle if horses are on 24-hour-a-day turnout when transitioning from winter to early spring pasture.
  • Studies have also shown that shows that pasture NSC concentrations are lowest in the evening and peaks at mid-day, so, if possible, it’s best to turn horses out at night and remove them from pasture by mid-morning.
  • Research also shows that as plants mature, NSC levels decrease as fiber levels increase. This depends on many situations, such as pasture management, pasture plant species, weather, and geographic location. Generally speaking, however, it takes plants approximately two to three weeks to go from the leafy stage to the prebud stage. Once the plants begin to mature (i.e., transitioning from the prebud staged to the fully bloomed stage), the lower NSC levels mean you might be able to increase your horse’s turnout time gradually. Consult your veterinarian or nutritionist if you have concerns about a particular horse.
  • For all horses prone to laminitis, insulin resistance, or other metabolic issues, restrict turnout to a drylot and provide adequate hay as a forage source. Choose late-cut hay that is likely to be lower in NSC. When dealing with at-risk horses, it’s advisable to have forage analyzed prior to feeding to determine its nutrient content.

Body Condition

  • Aim to keep your horse in a moderate body condition, between 5 and 6 (moderate) out of 9 on the Henneke Body Condition Scale. In addition, monitor a horse’s fat deposition, as it could be a sign of an impending medical condition. Insulin resistant horses, for example, tend to deposit large amounts of fat on the crest of the neck, shoulders, loin, tailhead, and above the eyes.
  • If a horse begins to gain excess weight in conjunction with spring turnout, consult a veterinarian or nutritionist to review the animal’s diet. In many cases, the horse’s calorie intake from pasture will need to be restricted with either a grazing muzzle or by stalling the horse during the day, as described above.

Take-Home Message

When it’s time for spring turnout, remember that early spring pastures are high in NSC levels in the first few weeks of growth. Proper turnout management and body condition monitoring can help keep your horse healthy. Always consult your veterinarian or nutritionist if you have concerns about a particular horse

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Written by:

Kristen M. Janicki, a lifelong horsewoman, was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and later attended graduate school at the University of Kentucky, studying under Dr. Laurie Lawrence in the area of Equine Nutrition. Kristen has been a performance horse nutritionist for an industry feed manufacturer for more than a decade. Her job entails evaluating and improving the performance of the sport horse through proper nutrition.

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