Q. I live in the Pacific Northwest and keep my horse at a boarding facility that has pasture turnout from late spring through fall. The pastures are about to open, and last year I struggled to maintain my horse’s weight when he was on pasture. He’s not insulin resistant but gained too much weight, and I know this isn’t good for him. He also developed loose manure when first on pasture, which is a condition I’d like to avoid this year. I’m considering using a grazing muzzle and wonder if you have any advice, because there seem to be several different types available. Additionally, do you have any suggestions for avoiding the loose manure?
A. Kudos to you for being proactive when it comes to managing your horse’s pasture time and balancing the benefits of pasture grazing with the all-too-common pitfalls. While some horses are lucky in that they can graze for unlimited periods of time with little negative impact on their condition, this is unfortunately not the case for many horses.
It’s a commonly held belief that many livestock species, including horses, will eat to meet their calorie needs. Indeed, this is sometimes true; however if this were the case all the time, horses would not gain weight on pasture. Weight gain is a sign that calorie intake exceeds requirement. Muzzles have been shown to significantly reduce calorie intake and weight gain in horses on pasture and are a useful management tool for those that gain too much weight.
Being on pasture offers many benefits such, as natural grazing behaviors and, for those horses in groups, an opportunity to socialize and interact more naturally. Using a muzzle allows access to these benefits while greatly reducing the weight-gain-associated risks.
As you point out, the market offers many different muzzle styles. Each has its pros and cons. For example, the Best Friend Standard Grazing Muzzle and Have A Heart muzzles consist of a plastic base and nylon webbing. Both have versions that include a build in halter and the standard version can also attach to your existing break-away halter by a series of four Velcro straps. These muzzles have a small circular hole in the bottom through which a limited amount of grass can pass.
Other similar muzzles also exist, and this style has several benefits including different sizes to allow a more custom fit. This style of muzzle also tends to be affordable retailing in the range of $30-$50. However, these are not always the most robust muzzles, and reports exist online that they sometimes rub. It may be possible to reduce the risk of rubbing by fitting sheepskin to the muzzle.
Another common design is for the muzzles to be made from one piece of molded semi-flexible material such as the Harmany grazing muzzle, which is made out of DuPont Kevlar. This muzzle, along with the Greenguard Grazing Muzzle, are considerably more expensive ($100-$120) than the more traditional muzzles but have many benefits. Because of the shape of these muzzles they hang down below the horse’s nose and are less likely to rub. They also allow for good airflow and, by several accounts, are very robust.
Which type of muzzle you decide to utilize will depend on your budget, as well as your and your horse’s preference. You might find that one brand fits your horse better than others. Fit and how you introduce the muzzle are important to success. Check out recommendations on how to introduce a grazing muzzle here.
Despite your best efforts, your horse might get the muzzle off while in pasture. This can result in a frustrating needle-in-a-haystack search for said muzzle. For this reason, I recommend modifying it with strips of bright tape, so you can find it more easily should it get lost.
As for the issue of the loose manure, this is typically a sign that the hindgut bacterial population and environment has been disrupted and generally occurs when a horse is introduced to too much pasture too quickly. Take care to introduce the pasture slowly even with a grazing muzzle.
You might want to consider feeding a good hindgut buffer and or prebiotic during the transition to pasture. A hindgut buffer helps to stabilize the pH of the horse’s hindgut helping to maintain the neutral pH preferred by the fiber utilizing bacteria. Prebiotics such as yeast culture help support these same bacteria and maintain a healthy hindgut environment.
Once your horse has successfully transitioned to having pasture be a part of his ration you should be able to remove these products from the diet. However, it might be beneficial to continue them for horses that are particularly sensitive.
With careful planning and management your horse should be able to safely enjoy having access to pasture.