Wednesday, April 01, 2020

How can horse owners restrict weight gain, prevent laminitis during time of inactivity and extended turnout?


New research from Great Britain shows that a pasture management system known as strip grazing can help prevent weight gain in horses this spring. Horse owners are advised to heed warnings about weight gain and laminitis risk if quarantine conditions are reducing exercise and increasing turnout time for inactive horses.

These challenging times are affecting every aspect of our lives. For many, the challenges extend to horse management. For owners and barn managers turning horses out daily or 24/7, the latest research on strip grazing, conducted in collaboration with the British horse feed company "SPILLERS™", may be helpful in managing a horse’s weight.

Rates of obesity are considered to be as high as 70% in some populations of ponies in the United Kingdom. Quite simply, horses usually get fat because they receive more calories/energy in their diet than they burn through activities such as exercise, keeping warm and the daily energy required to keep them alive (basal metabolic rate).

Because excess weight increases the risk of laminitis, it is crucial to try to keep grass intake under control. Recent research shows that employing a pasture management system known as "strip grazing" could be useful for restricting weight gain.

The new British study compared three different restricted grazing practices for equine bodyweight management during the UK grass growing season. Three groups of four ponies, equally matched for weight, height and body condition score, were placed in paddocks with a herbage yield equivalent to 1.5% (dry weight) of the ponies’ bodyweight per day. The ponies stayed in their paddocks for 28 days.

The paddocks were assigned to one of three grazing practices:
  • no other restriction; 
  • a lead fence placed across the width of the paddock to allow fresh grass to be accessed each day by extending it 1/28th of the paddock length daily; and 
  • "strip grazing". Both a lead and a back fence were used; the back fence was moved the same distance as the lead fence daily.

A horse in a field divided by movable fencing to achieve "strip grazing" to limit access to grass. (Photo credit: Sarah Shephard)


The researchers weighed the ponies and scored their body conditions weekly. Bodyweight gains were significantly higher for the ponies without any grazing restriction but there was no significant difference in weight gain for those with the lead fence and those with the lead fence and back fence.

“The ponies with gradual access to pasture via strip grazing had significantly lower bodyweight gains than their counterparts who were allowed free access to the entire 28-day herbage allocation,” said Clare Barfoot, RNutr, Marketing and Research and Development Director at Spillers. “If you are planning on turning your horse out to grass during this current situation or at any other time it’s certainly worth considering installing a strip grazing fence and moving it once a day.”

The next stage of research includes looking at a number of other aspects of strip grazing such as pasture wear and tear and activity levels in order to be able to give further advice as to the choice of strip grazing method.

To help horse owners get through these testing times safely, Clare offered the following suggestions:

1. Install a strip grazing system: smaller paddocks are best to limit grass availability, but the fence should be moved daily.

2. Turn a horse out at night: Typically overnight grass will contain less sugar and fructan (Water Soluble Carbohydrate).

3. Restrict time at grass: Ponies, in particular, quickly learn to maximize their time eating and can consume 40% of their daily intake in just three hours.

4. Use fewer blankets: Fewer blankets, or no blankets at all, will encourage a horse to burn off a few extra pounds keeping warm.

5. Try a grazing muzzle: A grazing muzzle can reduce intake by up to 80%. However, it must be properly fitted and allow for drinking. You must let the horse or pony get used to it before leaving it on for long periods. Muzzles should never be left on for 24 hours a day. Continue to monitor bodyweight during use,  as some horses and ponies can still gain weight while wearing a grazing muzzle.

6. Feed an alternative and safe source of forage: For horses and ponies at very high risk, consider removing them from pasture altogether and feeding them a suitable forage/short chopped fibre product, preferably one that has been approved by Great Britain's Laminitis Trust. (SPILLERS™ HAPPY HOOF™ and SPILLERS™ HAPPY HOOF™ Molasses-Free are now both even lower in starch and sugar and are approved by the Laminitis Trust, but may not be available outside the United Kingdom.)

7. Increase exercise: Regular exercise will help keep a horse’s weight in check and support a healthy metabolism.

The study, "Comparison of three restricted grazing practices for equine bodyweight management during the UK grass growing season", was conducted by researcher Annette Longland in collaboration with SPILLERS via the WALTHAM Equine Studies Group, which strives to enhance equine health and welfare worldwide.

Citation for this research:
Harris P & Longland A (2020). Comparison of three restricted grazing practices for equine bodyweight management during the UK grass growing season in Proceedings of the 4th Global Equine Endocrine Symposium, p64.

Horse owners in the United Kingdom who would like specific advice on feeding a horse or pony prone to laminitis can call the SPILLERS Care-Line on 01908 226626.

Information used in this story was provided by a press release. Some images were added by Hoofcare Publishing.

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