Courtesy of Farnam.com
In a perfect world, we’d have unlimited riding time and perfect weather year-round. In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s not where we live.
Conscientious horse owners know that each season brings its own set of unique challenges. Keeping horses healthy and happy requires being proactive and taking steps beforehand to hopefully avoid concerns.
Veterinarians routinely see an increase in calls about horses dealing with digestive upset during sudden weather changes.
“Although there is scant information in the scientific literature supporting this, we do see more digestive upsets with sudden weather changes,” acknowledges Richard G. Godbee, Ph.D., PAS, Dipl. ACAS, who is Director of Technical Services for Farnam.
Godbee says that this happens more often during the spring and fall when the temperatures can change dramatically within a 24-hour period as weather fronts move into an area. Although some people blame this on abrupt changes in barometric pressure, Godbee believes such digestive disturbances are not just related to one thing.
“Digestive disturbances are observed more often in warm/hot weather changing to cold weather,” he notes. “Often, we move horses to stalls from being on pasture or large paddocks during this time. Decreasing exercise will alter gut motility and this may lead to gastrointestinal upset. Also, as the temperature drops, water temperature drops and horses tend to consume less water if the water temperature drops below 45°F.”
Although hydration is crucial year-round, it’s especially important to ensure that horses are drinking enough during times of extreme weather fluctuation. Godbee finds that judicious use of electrolytes is a good way to help horses maintain water intake, no matter the season.
Winter to Spring
If your horsekeeping scenario includes pasture, spring is a season your horse is happy to see arrive because it means fresh grass and more grazing time. It also means that you, as a horse owner, need to be vigilant and use caution to avoid digestive upset.
While it may seem like the most normal thing in the world to have horses grazing on pasture, precaution should be taken in spring when they transition from a predominantly hay diet to one that includes lush grass. Even healthy horses can experience digestive disturbances if they overeat when grass is at peak growth.
Fortunately, smart management practices can help during this time of transition.
Godbee explains that some digestive upsets can arise simply because the horse’s forage changes markedly when he begins eating more grass than hay.
“Hay contains about ten percent moisture, while grass may contain as much as 80 percent water. This may lead to loose manure,” he notes.
If horses are on pasture year-round, they will get used to the grass as it grows and are less likely to have upsets than horses who have been off pasture and are then re-introduced. Gradual turnout on spring grass is the best practice.
Godbee advises restricting pasture time to a couple hours the first few days. Then gradually increase the time horses have access to grass over the next week or so. Continue gradually increasing the time on pasture and monitor horses to be sure each individual is adjusting well to the transition.
To prevent horses from gorging themselves when first turned out, feed hay first. This will help decrease overeating of lush grass.
“The use of a grazing muzzle may be warranted in some horses,” adds Godbee.
Studies have shown that wearing a grazing muzzle limits a horse’s grass intake by as much as 85 percent. They can still eat some grass, but not enough to overwhelm the digestive system. Wearing a grazing muzzle also allows a horse to enjoy the benefits of exercise at pasture and socializing with other horses, without the concern that he will overeat.
If your horse has been stalled most of the time during the winter, being turned out can be like kids released during recess, Godbee cautions. Racing about and playing can lead to body soreness or even injury, should the horse run into a fence, for example.
Use common sense and good horsemanship when turning out a horse that isn’t accustomed to it. Gradual transition over a few days from a small paddock to a larger area may avoid some concerns that can occur. Also be careful about the buddies you turn your horse out with. Monitor the group and make adjustments as needed. An especially bossy horse can cause grief for a less dominant member of the herd. You may need to put such horses in separate fields to avoid bullying.
As days warm and lengthen, keep an eye out for insect pests and use appropriate control products as needed.
Spring to Summer
Heat and humidity can be challenging in many regions during this season, making water consumption and insect control of utmost importance.
“Checking water sources during hot weather is important,” says Godbee.
“Creeks, ponds, and even water tanks may be poor water sources due to algae. In very hot weather, water in small water troughs may become hot resulting in decreased intake.”
If necessary, move your water trough so it’s out of the sun during the warmest hours of the day. Clean water sources regularly to avoid algae growth and to prevent mosquito larvae from developing.
Although you may think horses will drink plenty of water during hot weather, Godbee recommends using a good quality electrolyte year around and making sure horses have access to salt. He points out that offering loose salt will encourage a more consistent intake than blocks.
In addition, don’t assume that just because pasture grass is green during the summer that it is high quality.
“Depending on the region, summer grass may be very palatable, nutritious, and abundant, or it may be stemmy, mature, poorly digestible and low in nutritional value,” Godbee observes. “Since a horse can only consume a given amount of feed, we often see a decrease in Body Condition Score in horses on poor quality pastures, even though the amount of grass ‘looks’ adequate.”
Make it a point to regularly walk your entire pasture to take a closer look at grass condition. This is also a good opportunity to check for any holes, presence of weeds, or trash that may have blown in, as well as fence problems.
“Another issue is that with high heat and humidity horses tend to decrease the amount of time they spend grazing,” adds Godbee. “Some owners will turn-out on pasture during the day and put the horse in a dry-lot or stall at night. Thinking the horse probably ate grass all day, they may feed a reduced amount of hay, but this can exacerbate digestive upset.”
Insect activity can also cause horses to spend less time grazing. Some nervous or stressed horses will fret so much due to bugs that they drop weight. Avoid this by careful monitoring and using a long-acting insect repellent, such as a spot-on, for horses who spend most or all of their time on pasture.
Fly masks, sheets and boots may be warranted for horses who are especially bothered by insects.
Summer to Fall
Some of the same concerns you have in the spring about grass also apply to fall weather.
Many horse pastures across the United States contain cool-season perennial grasses, such as tall fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, orchard grass, perennial ryegrass, redtop, smooth bromegrass and timothy. These grasses have a higher sugar content than warm season perennial grasses like bahia and Bermuda, particularly in the spring and fall growing stage.
Cool season perennial grasses can produce high amounts of sugar, depending on both temperature and exposure to sunlight. Warm, sunny days and cool nights are typical in spring and fall, and are the prime times these grasses will accumulate more sugars. Some horses–such as those who are overweight, insulin-resistant, etc.–can be susceptible to health concerns when grazing on these types of pastures. If you have a horse with such concerns, you’ll want to talk to your veterinarian about the best times of day to allow grazing and how much time your horse should be on pasture.
Even normal, healthy horses may face issues during this season.
“Fall grasses are often mature and contain a lower amount of nutrients than when they are growing. Some grasses may be so coarse that they cause slight damage to the soft tissue in the mouth, resulting in a decrease in chewing/grinding of the grass. This may increase digestive upsets and decrease digestibility of the forage,” notes Godbee.
“Mature grass also contains much less water, so any decrease in water consumption in the horse may increase the chance of gastrointestinal upset. Again, we often see horses being stalled more during this time of year, which will also decrease gut motility.”
Pay attention to how much your horse is drinking and also monitor Body Condition Score to be sure he is at optimal condition before winter arrives.
Fall to Winter
A major concern during these cooler months is that horses don’t drink as much when it’s not hot. The issue, however, is that the horse’s body requires the same basic amount of water for maintenance no matter the season. An average 1,000-pound horse will drink anywhere from five to 20 or more gallons per day–depending on weather and how much he is exercising.
“We see more gastrointestinal upset issues during winter than any other time of the year. This is probably related to a decrease in water intake due to water temperature or limited access to water (frozen creeks, ponds),” says Godbee. “The thirst response in the horse is also less during cold weather; horses just don’t want to drink as much as they do in warm/hot weather. Use of a quality electrolyte will help encourage water consumption.”
Horses tend to drink less water if it is very cold or very warm. Studies have shown they prefer water at around 68° F. If you live in a region with cold winters, you should take steps to warm water in the winter enough that it encourages intake. For example, heated buckets or stock tank heaters won’t make water hot, but will take off the chill so horses will be more inclined to drink.
Another way to encourage water consumption any time of year is to offer a second bucket to which you add a little flavoring your horse likes to the water, such as a couple tablespoons of molasses or apple juice. Sugar-free Kool-Aid also works well, Godbee notes. (Flavoring the water can be especially helpful when traveling as water tastes different away from home. Just make sure the horse is used to whatever flavoring you add well before you leave home.) Whenever offering flavored water, always offer plain water at the same time so the horse has an option.
During the growing season, grass has a high water content, but dormant winter grass and hay contain much less moisture. When a horse is eating hay for the bulk of his forage, he typically needs to drink more water than a horse on rich pasture to make up for the drier content of his forage.
Godbee encourages horse owners to regularly observe their horses’ manure consistency and appearance. Dry, hard manure is a clear indication a horse needs greater water intake.
He adds that a good quality probiotic can be added to the horse’s feed to help avoid gastric disturbances during times of stress and seasonal weather changes.
Tip #1: Monitor Body Condition Score Year Round
It’s much easier to maintain a horse in healthy condition than to have to put on weight or take it off. Get familiar with the Henneke Body Condition Score chart (easily accessed with an online search on your computer or phone). Scores range from “1” (very poor) to “9” (obese). A healthy adult horse should be a “6” or “7,” although some very fit equine athletes may score a “5” but still be in good health. If you don’t see visible ribs, the horse’s condition score is “5,” which is considered “moderate,” or higher. Looks can be deceiving, so use your hands to palpate the horse’s body when checking condition. If you have any concerns about whether your horse is too fat or too thin, talk to your veterinarian.
Tip #2: Probiotics Can Help During Weather Changes
In order for digestion to occur properly, the horse’s hindgut requires a healthy population of beneficial microorganisms. Many things can interfere with this population of beneficial bacteria, including antibiotics, change of feed, stress, travel, seasonal changes, etc. Use of a good probiotic supplement can help keep the beneficial bacteria thriving. Probiotic supplements introduce live bacteria and microbes into the horse’s system in an attempt to maintain the population of “good bugs” in the gut. Some supplements also contain prebiotics, which are nondigestible carbohydrates that serve as food sources for the beneficial bacteria. It’s a good idea to use a probiotic supplement when your horse is under stress for any reason, after a course of antibiotics, when you are changing feed, or during seasonal changes.