By Sarah Borns
Spring is around the corner and we've got grazing muzzles on our mind. If you're like many horse owners, you may be unsure when to take your horse's muzzle back out after the Winter season. Do you tie it to the calendar or are there other signs to follow for starting grazing muzzle season? How do you know when to retrieve your horse's muzzle from the tack room?
Let's all admit right now that very few tack rooms are this well organized.
Every horse is different and has individual needs, so declaring a particular date for the start of grazing muzzle season is too crude. So the question is less "what is the start date for muzzling" and more "When do I start to muzzle my horse?" Either way, it's a tricky question! Some factors to consider include the environment, your particular horse, and your intentions with muzzling.
Environmental factors can be the trickiest to monitor. Determining how your pasture fared over winter may be a good starting point. On the other hand, staring at the grass to determine if it has grown an inch, or if it looks greener than previously, can lead to major headaches. Rather than try to rely on the evidence of your eyes, look to a more trustworthy, less biased pair; your horse's! Sometimes your horse can give you great insight into the quality of their environment.
Do you notice your horse actively grazing more often? Is your horse not as enthusiastic about mealtime? Maybe they're leaving extra hay behind? Is your horse getting harder to catch? Answering "yes" to any one of these questions should be a first alert that the sugary grass of spring is starting to sprout. If you're logging two or three checkmarks on that list, it's easier to be certain, or at least err on the side of caution that it's time to refit your horse with their grazing muzzle.
How is Your Horse Looking?
Your horse's physical condition can also give you clues about whether you should reach for their grazing muzzle. Spring is a time when increased monitoring becomes very important in horse health management. Establishing and knowing your horse's baselines can help you notice fluctuations.
Scoring your horse's neck can help determine how much weight they're carrying.
Is your horse exhibiting signs of obesity such as a cresty neck or fat pouches? If yes, you may want to consider muzzling, or combining muzzling with a reduction in feed. If not, you will want to continue to monitor these areas closely as the days and weeks pass. The eye test can be complicated in late Winter. Keep in mind that it can be hard to assess body condition under a fluffy coat, so it may make sense to ask your vet for their opinion as well when they are out for Spring vaccinations.
You will also want to touch your horse's hooves on a daily basis to check for heat. While many of us love warmer weather, we never like warm hooves, as they are a sign of increased blood flow and issues to come. Checking pulses is a central part of my springtime grooming routine. I find the easiest way to remember is when I am picking out my horse's hooves. If you do not know how to check for pulses, ask around! It is an important way to keep track of your horse’s health.
You will also want to look for signs of upset stomach: diarrhea, lethargy, etc. Sudden access to a lot of lush grass can cause stomach upset and noticeably affect the shape and quality of your horse's dung piles. The shape and consistency of horse poop can tell you a lot about the state of their digestive health and the sugar content of the grass they're eating.
If your horse begins to exhibit any of these symptoms, you may want to start scaling back or restricting their access to grass. If they're getting turned out every day, a grazing muzzle is the surest way to slow their intake. This will give their digestive systems a chance to catch up and adapt to the changing quality of the pasture grass.
Are You Muzzling for Seasonal Transition or for the Long Haul?
Managing your horse's transition from Winter to Spring feeding routines is only one reason you might reach for a grazing muzzle at the change of seasons. Restricting grass intake for these reasons may be time-limited for one thing. Muzzling for a seasonal transition is a different kind of commitment than trying to keep an air fern at a reasonable weight all summer.
Once your horse has had time to adjust to the changes in the grass, they may be ready to regain free access to the grass without a muzzle. Where you live, your horse's medical history, and a variety of other factors can determine whether your horse uses a grazing muzzle as a short or long-term solution. Your vet will be able to provide valuable input for making these decisions as well.
Sarah Borns is a lawyer and former barn manager. She has a beautiful Welsh-Thoroughbred cross named Haley.