EQUINE - Spring is sprung - a cautionary tale Mar 2018
1 Mar 2018
What a winter! It seems to have been never ending this year with very little respite from the cold. As a consequence, the grass has actually stopped growing this winter; it certainly has up here in the frozen North. As I write this, we are in mid-March and I can’t think of the last time that I saw such poor looking grass swards at this time of year. I really feel for all those farmers who are lambing at the moment with nowhere to get ewes and lambs turned out to. It certainly puts my own personal, horse related turnout woes in to perspective! Living in the temperate climate that we do, spring will come and I hear things are meant to warm up a little this week. This is sure to fill us all with joy and reignite motivation but please be cautious with any grass sensitive horses over the next 4-6 weeks.
It would be so tempting , after the winter that we have had, to just chuck everything out and leave them to it, but for many of our equine friends this would be at best irresponsible and at worst dangerous. The grass will be shooting through before you are aware of it. Horses that have been deprived of the sweet stuff for the last few months will eat every little fresh shoot, as it comes through, before you even get a chance to see it. Spring grass and the early growing season can cause issues for many of our equine friends.
The first shoots of short grass are very high in sugar which can easily set off laminitis in sensitive animals, due to the effect that is has on blood glucose and therefore circulating insulin levels. It could also set off laminitis in a horse that has never had laminitis before but whom, unbeknown to the owner, has been sitting on a metabolic (EMS) knife edge for months, maybe even years. Protect any sensitive individuals by using grazing muzzles or starting reduced turnout sooner rather than later. Construct a turnout area where you can feed soaked or low sugar hay instead. Cut down the area that they have access to at the very least.
For those who show their sensitivity to this sudden increase in sugars (from grass) and starch (from clover) by exhibiting bouts of gassy colic, this can also be a dangerous time of year. These horses tend to gorge themselves as soon as a fresh bite of grass is available, overwhelming the digestive system and upsetting the gut flora. This results in increased fermentation and gas build up in the hindgut, which can lead to a very painful colic. As a double whammy, this type of colic and the upset to the gut environment can oftentimes end up as a laminitis case too!
The other issue that is heralded with the return of spring grass is more of a behavioural issue. Very many horses undergo a personality transplant at the time that spring grass starts to come through. Increased sugar levels in the diet mean an increase in fast release type energy available to the horse and that, in conjunction with the possibility of an upset gut, can make for a rather lively and/or grumpy ride. There is some thought that low levels of magnesium in lush grass is also responsible for some undesirable behavioural traits, hence why many of the calmers on the market rely on magnesium, however use with caution. It can sometimes have the opposite effect on horses that are not short of magnesium.
Spring time also sees an increase in the number of grass sickness cases. Whilst this disease can hit at any time of the year, the majority of cases occur between April and July with a peak in May. Despite over 100 years of research, the causes of this awful disease are still not fully understood but the current research is pointing towards a soil borne organism as the likely culprit (Clostridium botulinum). As horses are nibbling at short, sweet grass they are very close to the soil, especially if paddocks are poached or fairly bald, this in conjunction with a disturbed gut microflora population could allow this dreaded disease to take hold.
At the first signs of milder and sunnier weather, sensitive individuals and their grazing should be closely monitored. Very sensitive individuals may need to be secured away from grazing altogether and kept in an area without grass (hard standing, arena or stable) until the spring danger time is over.
Protective factors for all of the above spring issues include:
Offering hay at all times (this is particularly important where grass sickness is a potential worry). Hay ensures that the fibre content of the diet is maintained and helps to stabilise the gut microflora. Soaked hay is useful for good doers and insulin sensitive individuals as it helps to reduce the sugar intake of the horse. Use trickle feeder haynets or other slow feeder type products to slow eating down.
Use digestive enhancer supplements such as Yea-sacc to help to stabilise gut microflora as a general rule at this time of year (the majority of good quality balancer pellets will contain this already). There are also supplements available that will help control excess fermentation and/or gas build up to lessen the risk of grass colic. Different supplements work for different horses.
If in any doubt, please do speak to a qualified nutritionist for advice.