Spring grass is nature’s way of making up for the hardships of winter — great for a wild horse that’s survived for months on tree buds and dead vegetation but often a bit much for our pampered domesticated horses. Even short grazing periods on spring grass can cause a rapid weight gain, digestive upset or laminitis in susceptible individuals.
Most people cut back hay when horses have access to grass, which seems logical. However, the biggest cut should be grain. Young grass is higher in simple carbohydrates and protein, just like grain, but lower in most minerals than older grass and hay. Young grass is also low in fiber. This means your horse still needs to eat hay for fiber and may need help ensuring an adequate mineral intake.
Guidelines for avoiding excessive weight gain, mineral shortages and digestive upset include:
• Keep overweight horses off young growths of grass, especially if they have a history of laminitis.
• Introduce fresh young grasses with turn out for 10- to 15-minute periods, increasing slowly but backing off at the first sign of diarrhea. If you want more turnout time, use a muzzle that severely and reliably restricts grass intake (see March 2002).
• For horses on 24-hour pasture, be alert for diarrhea, weight gain and early laminitis in the form of warm and/or tender feet. Confine horses with these symptoms to a dry lot until the problem resolves and the grass has matured.
• Decrease or eliminate grain for horses that begin to gain too much weight.
• Continue to offer hay free choice in the dry lot or stalls. You should offer it in pastures, too, as a horse with an upset gut will prefer the hay over the grass.
• Keep salt available at all times, and add at least 2 tablespoons of salt per day to the horse’s feed/supplement if the horse doesn’t appear to consume much salt on his own.
• Choose a grain mix with a protein level at 10% or less when the horse is grazing young grass. Spring grass can contain 20% or more protein.
• Provide about half your horse’s total daily mineral needs from a supplement suitable for your grass/hay types (see sidebar). Your horse may take in minerals voluntarily if you put them out free choice, especially with a highly palatable mix like the Select The Best minerals (www.selectthebest.com, 800-648-0950), but keep a close eye to ensure he actually eats it. Many horses don’t consume free-choice minerals.
Moorman’s Grostrong (www.moormans.com, 217-222-7100) mineral block may also work well as it’s palatable and the intake of other minerals is linked to the horse’s natural salt hunger. Buckeye’s Harvest Salt (www.buckeyenutrition.com, 800-898-9467) combined with their Grass Plus is also a good choice.
If your horse doesn’t need to receive grain, consider these options to give him something in his bucket, adding salt and a mineral supplement, if necessary:
• A high-fiber, low-calorie, mineral-dense feed.
• Soaked beet pulp with 2 oz. rice bran added to balance the mineral levels.
• Alfalfa pellets, if you have little clover in the pasture, or grass hay pellets, if your field has larger clover amounts.
Some degree of manure color and its consistency change is expected when horses are on grass, but it shouldn’t become liquid, and at least soft-ball formation should be noted. If it becomes too wet, the intestinal good bugs/flora are seriously imbalanced. In fact, byproducts of the rapid fermentation of simple carbohydrate sources and protein can lead to gas colic or even laminitis.
To correct the problem, reduce grazing time. Eliminate it, if necessary. Use Ration Plus to support the growth of beneficial organisms, and provide unlimited access to mature-cutting hay, and feed the horse soaked beet pulp with 2 oz. by weight of powdered psyllium (4 oz. by measuring cup) added. Eliminate grain. When manure is formed again, restart introducing grass.