So, right about now, we feel like this winter will never end and we’re getting a bit tired of it to be honest…..alright, a lot tired of it! Endless rain, endless mud – we are fed up!
Although, in between the dreary, offensively wet weather of the past few weeks, we have seen glimmers of blue skies and sunshine. Spring is on the way and we absolutely cannot wait!
However, there are a few things to think about in the run up to Springtime, other than how much easier our lives will soon be! This is a great time to assess your horse’s condition and think about his feed regime for the coming weeks. The grass will start coming through before we know it and that can present many horses with challenges and problems.
Nowadays, it seems easier than ever to keep weight on our horses over the winter time. There are so many different feeds available on the market, which is mainly a great thing as it allows us to fine tune our horses’ diets and target specific individual issues. However, the temptation to overfeed is rife and so easy to do, especially when so many yards now close their fields over the winter to save the grazing for the warmer months. When turnout is limited, our stable management workload increases and we may not have as much time to exercise our horses as we would like. Also, our horses can easily become bored when standing in, it is tempting to feed more to help keep them occupied. These factors combined can mean that we overfeed and therefore, end up with horses who are carrying far too much condition.
In the wild, horses would naturally lose weight during the winter months and gain condition during the spring and summer when the grass carries more quality. Obviously, we don’t want to allow our horses to drop off too much because, unlike wild horses, they have a workload to contend with. However, it is important to use the winter as an opportunity to allow your horse’s metabolism to reset and to shed any excess weight they may have gained over the summer.
If your horse has been doing less work over the winter then his feed should have been adjusted accordingly. If not in much work, most horses should do perfectly well on good quality forage alone. However, you could feed a balancer alongside this to ensure your horse is getting all the essential vitamins and minerals they need. As the daylight hours increase and the weather improves, you will likely be increasing your horse’s workload. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to increase his feed immediately. If you feel your horse is carrying a little too much weight coming out of winter then now is the time to do something about it. If you allow your horse to go into spring carrying too much weight then it will only go one way once the grass begins to come through.
Take a really good look at your horse and be totally honest with yourself about his condition. Assess your feeding regime, are there any tweaks you could make to reduce his calorie intake? Are you exercising him enough, could you squeeze in a couple of extra rides a week, or could you make your exercise sessions more efficient? Maybe you could ask your instructor for help coming up with a fitness plan?
Top tip: If you are concerned about your horse’s weight then why not book an appointment with our Weigh Bridge service to get an accurate picture of his condition? It’s also handy to have a weigh tape at the yard so you can keep a regular check. It may not give a particularly accurate reading, but it will give you a benchmark.
Obesity is one of the most serious issues affecting equines in the UK today. It can increase the risk of heart disease, respiratory problems and arthritis which can all develop into life limiting conditions, if not life threatening. However, the most common condition associated with overweight horses is laminitis.
So what is laminitis?
Laminitis is an excruciatingly painful condition of the foot. It affects the inner hoof wall, which is made up of sensitive interlinking fibres called the laminae. During the onset of laminitis, the blood flow to the laminae is affected and they begin to separate, which is very, very painful. This means that the pedal bone does not have sufficient support and can begin to rotate. In severe cases, the pedal bone can rotate so much that it comes through the sole of the hoof – known as foundering. This would obviously cause unimaginable suffering to the horse and is extremely serious. Laminitis is a very common condition, which can be fatal if left untreated.
There are a number of causes of laminitis; including stress, severe infection (toxaemia) and concussion. However, laminitis is most commonly nutritionally induced – many overweight horses will be taking in levels of starch and sugar that are far too high. When this reaches the hind gut undigested, it can cause toxins to be released which enter the bloodstream and affect the sensitive laminae in the foot.
Sometimes obesity is related to a metabolic condition, such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). Horses and ponies with this type of condition may be susceptible to putting weight on more easily and may be more reactive to high sugar and starch levels in the grass. These animals need to be managed carefully to ensure they are not exposed to feeds which could cause sugar/starch overload and trigger the onset of laminitis.
Symptoms and treatment
Many cases of laminitis will come on very suddenly and need to be treated urgently with veterinary input. Horses suffering from the condition will be in obvious pain and display some or all of the following symptoms:
- reluctance to move and/or an unwillingness to get up from a lying down position
- a hard and pronounced crest
- heat in the feet and an increased digital pulse
- rocking back on their heels to take pressure off the feet
If you find that your horse or pony is displaying symptoms of laminitis, you must call your vet straight away. Your horse will need pain relief and you will need to make them as comfortable as possible. Remove any access to grass and put your horse into his stable, preferably with a very thick shavings bed. This will cushion the feet and provide support for the hooves. It is very important that you do not starve your horse – provide them with soaked hay to eat and cut out all hard feed; although, you may need to give them a little chaff as a carrier for their pain relief medication.
Your vet will probably want to take x-rays of the hooves to guage the extent of the damage within. If the pedal bone has begun to rotate then this can potentially be combated with corrective shoeing and your vet will need to work closely with your farrier to ensure this is done correctly. If you are able to go down this route, it will be a long road ahead.
Lots of horses and ponies recover well from a bout of laminitis. However, once they have had it once, they will forever be prone and will need to be managed extremely carefully in the future. It is essential that they are fed correctly and that they are kept fit to ensure that they maintain a healthy weight.
There are lots of feeds available on the market which provide the correct nutrition in a low calorie form. Balancers are a great option because you don’t have to feed large quantities to give your horse everything he would need nutritionally to stay healthy. You can get lots of low calorie options, such as Spillers Light & Lean Balancer, Bailey’s No. 14 Lo-Cal Balancer and Topspec Lite Balancer. There are also lots of good quality chaffs which are low in calories and high in fibre, such as Honeychop Light & Healthy, Dengie Healthy Hooves and Spillers Happy Hoof.
There are also supplements you can give to your horse to help support healthy laminae; such as Global Herbs Laminitis Prone, NAF Laminaze and Equine America Lamigard.
The most important consideration is the availability and quality of the forage, which includes grass! The sugar levels in the grass are highest in the spring, with another flush in the autumn. During this time is may be necessary to turn laminitis prone equines out onto woodchip or sand paddocks with soaked hay as they have such a low tolerance for sugars. A grazing muzzle may be another option at this time of year. If they can tolerate some grass without a bout of laminitis then the best time of day to turn out is early morning, limited to a couple of hours only. During the day, the grass uses light to make sugar to use for growth and reproduction of the plant. The sugars deplete overnight and are at their lowest in the very early morning.
For hay/haylage choose one which is high in fibre and mature when cut as this will provide bulk without too much sugar, helping to avoid conditions associated with starvation such as gastric ulcers and stable vices (never leave your horse without food for more than 4 hours if possible). Ensure fresh water is available at all times.