With warmer weather and increased daylight, most horse owners rejoice when spring arrives. However, it is important to know that this time of year can be challenging if your horse’s health is not managed correctly.
With increased warm weather and daylight, most of the time (unless in drought) grasses tend to grow fast and well. Naturally, grasses contain non-structural carbohydrates (NSC’s). These NSC’s include sugars, fructans and starches which support the growth of the grass. During summer these NSC levels are fairly low but in Spring, they can get to dangerously high levels for horses. Without correct pasture and diet management, these changes in the grass can cause several issues for horses, especially those prone to digestive or metabolic issues.
Colic is one of the main issues that can arise as a result of the over consumption of lush green spring pastures. This is because when the horse consumes such a large amount of grass quickly, rapid fermentation of this grass occurs in the horse’s digestive tract and releases gas as it ferments. This gas can build up in the gut and cause painful gas colic in the horse which may require veterinary intervention.
The other major health issue that can be caused by high NSC grasses is insulin resistance and laminitis. Commonly spoken about in the horse industry, laminitis is a systemic disease that presents itself in the hoof of the horse. The hoof becomes damaged and there is inflammation of the tissue between the hoof and underlying coffin bone. Laminitis is one of the leading causes of horse deaths and makes a substantial financial and emotional impact on the horse industry. It is preventable with correct management and an understanding of equine nutrition.
Laminitis is caused when the horse consumes excessive amounts of high NSC forage or grain. When this reaches the large intestine of the horse, rapid fermentation occurs and can result in an acid and gas buildup. This increased acid decreases pH in the hindgut and causes a release of endotoxins. These endotoxins then change the circulation to the hoof leading to damaged tissues and the development of laminitis. Signs of laminitis include lameness, stiffness and unwillingness to walk.
Both laminitis and colic are easily preventable through owner awareness and education, and appropriately managed access to pasture & diet. To avoid these nasty health issues in spring, horse owners should observe the below tips.
Avoid overfeeding/ irregular feeding of large amounts of grain
Try to slowly increase the amount of fresh green pasture that the horse is allowed access to (with grazing muzzles, strip grazing or timed grazing sessions)
Allow grazing early in the morning when fructans and sugars in grasses are lowest
Feed small regular meals (especially with grains) to reduce rapid fermentation and increase digestion