Grazing Muzzles – A Good Tool for Easy Keepers

Many of us are faced with the dilemma of an easy keeper – these horses seem to get fat just by looking at pasture, much less being turned out on it! We know we need to limit their intakes, but it feels cruel to lock them away from the green grass, especially when their more slender pasture-mates are able to graze for hours every day and not put on an ounce (I have a friend like that, and I work hard not to hold it against her!).

Grazing muzzles are a great way to limit your horse's intake on pasture

The health and well being of these easy keeping, plump horses and ponies can greatly benefit from a reduced caloric and controlled starch and sugar intake. Luckily, horse owners have a tool that can be utilized to help with this problem – grazing muzzles. Grazing muzzles allow horses to run, roam and feel like they are grazing all day, but still have their intakes reduced. The basic make up of the grazing muzzle is similar to a halter, usually with a piece of rubber affixed to it that fits over the mouth and has a small opening. This greatly reduces the amount of grass eaten and can help with weight control on those chubby horses and ponies.  

Additionally, it allows the horse to get the benefits of turnout, including socialization and exercise which can help alleviate some of the boredom related issues that may be found in horses that are kept in dry lot or stalled situations (weaving, cribbing, etc.).

Some key things to consider when using a grazing muzzle:

  • Does your muzzle fit the horse properly? Similar to proper halter fit, the muzzle shouldn’t be too tight or too loose.
  • Is your fencing safe for use with a muzzle? Think about catch points like stray wires, etc. that the muzzle could get caught on. Some basic changes or repairs to fencing may be required.
  • After you have turned your horse out with a muzzle, monitor water intakes. Horses can drink just fine with a muzzle on, but it may take some getting used to.

With the right management, grazing muzzles can be a wonderful tool to allow your horse the freedom of the pasture without adding extra pounds.

Prevention and Management of EMS in Horses

There is no treatment or cure for Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), so taking preventative measures though diet and exercise are the best defenses against the development of EMS.

Crinkles on Toby's neck are evidence of his 'overweight' status

Here are some great defensive strategies to help prevent your horse from developing EMS:

    • Prevent obesity by providing a forage-based nutritionally balanced diet with controlled starches and sugars.
    • Maintain an optimal body condition through regular exercise.
    • Work with an equine nutritionist or veterinarian to understand what a healthy weight and body condition is for your horse to help prevent over-feeding or dietary imbalances that can contribute to EMS.

For horses who already are dealing with EMS, follow these tips to help successfully manage their condition:

    • Prevent or reduce obesity through controlled starch and sugar in the total diet along with exercise (unless horse is painful from laminitis episodes).
    • It is recommended that these horses have very little to no access to fresh pasture to avoid the overexposure to the sugars in grass.  Use of grazing muzzles or a dry lot are good alternatives to stall confinement, as this allows the horse to exercise on its own.
    • Have a nutrient analysis done on your hay to understand the NSC content – keeping in mind that it is important to understanding to NSC content of the total diet (hay + grain, if applicable).
    • Soaking hay (15 – 30 min warm water) can help leach out some of the sugars in the hay, just be sure to feed the hay right away before it spoils, and discard the sugar waste water, so the horse does not have access to it.
    • Low calorie ration balancers are good horse feed options to balance the diet if there are vitamin and mineral deficiencies from feeding a forage only diet, and/or from soaking hay.

 

 

What is Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS)?

EMS is an endocrine (hormonal) disorder in horses, similar to metabolic syndrome in humans, that is characterized by obesity, insulin resistance, and regional adiposity (abnormal fat deposits), which can predispose affected horses to chronic  laminitis.

What types of horses are affected? 

First and foremost, most horses do not suffer from EMS.  Most horses tolerate dietary carbohydrates (e.g. NSC, starch, sugar, fructan) quite well, and thrive on this important and readily available source of energy.   Performance horses in particular need sufficient NSC in their diets for work and recovery after exercise.  Too little starch and sugar in the diet can actually diminish athletic performance over time in non-EMS horses.

Tess the pony indulges

That being said, EMS can occur in any breed, however ponies, Morgans, Paso Finos, and horses that tend to be “easy keepers” seem to be most vulnerable to developing EMS.  It should also be noted that not all obese (fat) horses are insulin resistant, and not all insulin resistant horses are fat.

How do I know if my horse is insulin resistant (IR)?

Veterinary diagnostic testing (blood work) is recommended to confirm IR, but here are some other classic signs of insulin resistance in horses and ponies:

  • A classic sign of IR is a “cresty neck”, of which a clear correlation between neck circumference and IR has been documented.
  • Horses with regional deposits of lumpy or dimpled fat pads (e.g. behind the shoulder, around tailhead, over the loin), are suspect of being IR.
  • Horses that seem to gain weight rapidly, or blow up easily, particularly in spring with new pasture growth, relative to other horses may indicate IR.
  • Horses that are tender footed, and/or that demonstrate rings on the hoof wall, expanded white line and blood spots on the soles of their feet,  suggests mild, chronic bouts of laminitis and IR.

EMS is easily confused with other clinical disease such as Cushing’s Disease (a.k.a. pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction) and hypothyroidism due to similar clinical signs, despite different underlying causes.  It is very important to work with a trusted vet to ensure an accurate diagnosis if any of these conditions are suspected.

A word of caution, single blood samples for the diagnosis of IR can be very unreliable and misleading as several factors unrelated to EMS influence glucose and insulin levels (time and content of horse’s last meal, type of feed horse is adapted to, time of day sample is collected, stress level of horse), leading to false conclusions.  Taking multiple blood samples over several days, or utilizing techniques such as the euglycemic insulin clamp or a combined glucose insulin tolerance test (CGIT) are more involved, but can lend more validity to the lab analysis.  In any case, early detection of EMS and other endocrine disorders is preferable.