by Sarah Borns
The novel coronavirus shut down the entire world in 2020, and we are all still in the process of adapting to new ways of life. Stay-at-home orders this spring coincided with the arrival of lush, spring grass. I found myself worrying constantly, not only over my pony Haley's health, but also my own, as well as that of my friends and family. Traditionally, the way I safeguard Haley's health at the start of spring is by fitting her with a grazing muzzle. The way that I've come to protect my own health, and that of my community, is by wearing a mask.
Thinking about masks and muzzles at this particular moment in history led me to reflect on the often-surprising similarities between COVID and grass-related health issues, such as laminitis. Just as my pony has to get used to wearing a grazing muzzle every year as the grass becomes lush, I am getting used to wearing a face mask on a regular basis. In both cases, we do it in the interest of protecting our health and herd, whether horse or human.
Author Sarah Borns with her pony Haley
I am a vocal advocate for appropriately muzzling horses to mitigate health issues related to overgrazing. I have long done this for my own ponies. When I managed a 70-horse dressage facility in Maryland, educating horse owners about grazing muzzles was something of a personal crusade.
It is our obligation as horse owners to take care of our equine partners. Likewise, it is our obligation as citizens to protect our communities by wearing face masks. Without a muzzle, many equines will suffer from grass-related illnesses and may die as a result. Without a face mask, we may unknowingly be spreading coronavirus to our friends, families, and communities.
Lockdown Lumps: Quarantine Weight Gain
Many states went into complete lockdown early this spring: workplaces were shuttered, along with schools, gyms, stores, as well as equine boarding facilities and stables. For many equine owners, stay-at-home orders meant not seeing and riding their horses as much, if at all. Many horses and horse owners were getting less exercise and, as a result, experienced weight gain, also known as the “quaran-ten” or “quarantine fifteen.”
In my home region in the Washington, DC, area, the COVID shutdown began in March. This was right about the time of year when spring grass was starting to peek out. Kept from their regular routine of interacting with and exercising their horses due to the pandemic lockdown, many responsible horse owners began muzzling earlier in the season. Some may have even invested in a grazing muzzle for the first time when boarding facilities began turning horses out in rich pastures.
Muzzles are to Laminitis as Masks are to COVID-19
One parallel between the laminitis epidemic and COVID pandemic is that there is no vaccine or cure for either. We cannot see the sugar in spring grass, much like we cannot see the coronavirus germs, but science and reality have taught us that both exist and present quantifiable risks. The question isn't whether these are problems, but rather, "What can we do about them?"
Liv from Pro Equine Grooms and her pony Miguel are muzzled, masked, and ready to go.
When horses are at risk of overgrazing, they can wear a grazing muzzle to protect them from overindulging. Similarly, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we can limit exposure by wearing a face mask. This will not only protect ourselves, but also our neighbors, family, and friends from illness or even death. This is not dramatic; it is a sad truth right now. Masks and muzzles are both easy safety measures that protect health.
Misconceptions about Masks and Muzzles
There are a lot of misconceptions about grazing muzzles that may make horse owners initially hesitate to use them. Some of these misconceptions include the ideas that grazing muzzles are cruel, they limit a horse’s freedom to be a horse, and a litany of others. These could not be further from the truth. I would argue that it is cruel to let a horse overindulge in grass to the point of developing laminitis.
Some people say that face covering requirements, like putting muzzles on horses, are limitations or restrictions of their individual freedoms. On the contrary, I believe that it is these very requirements that will give us back the freedom we so desire.
Kara from Musgrave Equestrian and Finnick the Draft Cross
By wearing a mask and reducing COVID-19 infection rate, we can get back to business as usual and revive the economy until science and medicine can find a way forward. Similarly, grazing muzzles give horses prone to laminitis their freedom, too; the freedom to be out in the pasture with their friends rather than stuck in stalls or dry lots.
Getting Used to Wearing Masks and Muzzles
One persistent objection to masks and muzzles is that they seem hot or uncomfortable. This can be true at first for horses and humans alike. Some horses take to a grazing muzzle right away; others require more time to adjust. You can help by hand-grazing your horse with a muzzle on. You can also break off some long grass and offer it through the slots until they figure out how it works.
It may also help to tweak the fit of your horse's muzzle, or even try a different style of muzzle. The point is to ensure maximum comfort and happiness for your equine. It's a process, and one that may require some effort, but the work is worthwhile, because it is a long-term investment in your horse’s health and well-being.
"Why Do I Need To Wear a Mask?" by Reins of Rhythm
People may similarly want to tweak the fit of their masks or try a few different mask styles and find what works best for them. I have one style of mask I prefer to use around the barn - to protect the staff who care for my pony - and another I like to use when running errands. Soon, you and your horse will both forget you are even wearing anything at all. It's worth remembering that helmets can also be hot and cause discomfort, but we accept those minor disadvantages in exchange for the major health advantages.
Masks and Muzzles: Helping the Horse and Human Herd
As of late July 2020, coronavirus numbers across the USA are still rising dramatically. Among horses, obesity and laminitis case numbers also rise every year. Getting these medical situations under control is like eventing: we want low scores! With predictions of additional waves of the virus and shutdowns for this Fall, we should all remain vigilant and be prepared. The worst may not be over; it might not even be here yet.
It's worth repeating that there are simple things we can do in both cases that are well within our power. If your horse experiences a sudden change in weight or exercise due to stay-at-home orders, please re-evaluate their intake and take action to protect them, whether that's through feed changes and/or muzzling. Similarly, please wear a face mask in public. COVID-19 is not going away; it could be years before there is a widely-accessible vaccine. Let's all do our part to protect both our horse and human herd.
About the author:
Sarah Borns is a native Washingtonian lawyer who works in health care and research compliance. She enjoys running, hiking with her dogs, and training her pony in dressage.