New Year's Resolutions for Horsekeepers

Kick off the New Year by putting your good intentions into practice and resolving to make changes around the barn that you've been putting off.

One of easiest and most effective ways to improve your horse’s health and happiness is to increase his turnout time. | ©Christine Barakat/EQUUS Magazine

It’s practically a tradition to break New Year’s resolutions. How many of us have actually lost those 10 pounds, cut out caffeine or organized our closets despite the declarations we made when hanging the new calendar? Rather than going through the motions again this year, consider using the fresh start of January 1 to make resolutions that focus on your horsekeeping habits instead.

Of course, it’s not like you’re a bad equine caretaker now. In fact, if you’re reading this, you’re probably quite conscientious. But chances are you’ve thought of making at least one or two management changes that you just haven’t gotten around to. These are the things you know will help make your horse healthier and happier but, for whatever reason, you just haven’t done yet. Well, now’s the time.

To help you get your list started, we’ve put together a few horse-related New Year’s resolutions to consider, along with some practical advice for implementing them over the long term. Resolving to do them all would probably be too much to take on, but pick a few that seem the most manageable and will have the greatest benefit to your horse and situation.

1. Increase your horse’s turnout time
You’ve no doubt heard this advice a hundred times, and with good reason: Horses on full turnout are naturally more fit, colic less, have fewer respiratory issues, grow stronger hooves and tend to be less “flighty” when ridden. Given all of those benefits, why wouldn’t you turn your horse out 24/7? Because the reality of walking out in the darkness of a rainy winter evening to fetch a wet horse you have to clean up before you ride is pretty miserable, that’s why.

Fortunately, your horse can benefit from even a few extra hours of turnout each day. So resolve to increase your horse’s turnout time by any amount you can. Small management modifications can help you keep that pledge:

• Consider building a small “holding” paddock close to the barn, where you can turn your horse out for a few hours even when you know you’ll need him close by later on.

• Establish a smaller “catch pen” at the entrance to your larger field. Always feed and water your horse in this area and you can just shut the gate after a meal to keep him there until you ride him later.

• If grooming a wet horse is your biggest turnoff, look into lightweight turnout blankets and rain sheets that can cut down on the mud you’ll have to contend with when you bring in your horse.

And remember that pasture living isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. If you know you won’t be riding your stall-kept horse for a few days, leave him out in the pasture during that time. If he’s got an adequate winter coat, companionship, a source of forage, water and shelter from the wind, he’ll do just fine. When you’re riding again regularly, you can go back to the regular stall routine. Even small increases in turnout will yield positive results, and as your horse’s health improves and you spend less time cleaning stalls, you’ll find that your incentives to keep him outdoors will outweigh the hassles. In fact, this will probably end up being one of the easier resolutions to keep.

2. Maintain your horse at a healthy weight
Equine obesity is now epidemic. Recent research from England showed that about 54 percent of horses there were dangerously overweight, but their owners did not recognize the problem. The researchers say they’d expect to find similar results in this country. Some owners, it seems, don’t have an “eye” for weight or are in denial about how overweight their horses really are.

Extra pounds carry a high price. Horses who are overweight are more prone to joint disease, metabolic conditions and potentially deadly laminitis. The problem is compounded by the fact that many breeds of horses, and nearly all ponies, are genetically predisposed to obesity, probably due in part to a so-called “thrifty gene” that allows them to survive on minimal forage. These are the horses who can “live on air” but we end up giving a scoop of grain twice a day anyway because we don’t want to leave them out at feeding time.

Making the resolution to keep your horse’s weight under control will require adjusting your own perceptions as well as your horse’s lifestyle. The first step is to review the Henneke Body Condition Score (BCS) System and determine for yourself what your horse’s score is. If you’re unsure, ask a knowledgeable friend or, better yet, your veterinarian for an unbiased assessment.

If your horse needs to lose weight, work with your veterinarian to determine how many calories he actually needs and adjust his diet accordingly. Be prepared to cut back on his ration dramatically or switch to a lower-calorie feed. You’ll also want to look into using a grazing muzzle during turnout in the spring and fall and potentially year-round if your horse is susceptible to laminitis. Yes, a muzzled horse can look sad, but not nearly as sad as one who has foundered.

Diet changes probably won’t be enough to slim down an extremely fat horse, so you’ll also need to increase his exercise. More turnout with an active herd is a great start, but it won’t be as effective as under-saddle workouts four or more days a week. Again, consult with your veterinarian to map out a progressive conditioning/weight loss exercise regimen for your horse. If you can’t ride as often as necessary, consider half-leasing your horse to a trusted rider or just sharing him with friend looking for a regular mount.

3. Modernize your deworming plan
This is a resolution that benefits not only your horse but, ultimately, all of horsekind. It’s a two-pronged approach, the first being to address your use of chemical dewormers and the second to improve your manure management practices to control parasites.

That internal parasites can develop resistance to chemical dewormers isn’t a distant possibility—it’s a scientifically proven reality. Resistance develops over several generations of parasites, when the ones that survive treatment are the only ones left to reproduce. Eventually, the parasites that remain on a farm are genetically selected to resist the chemicals (anthelmintics) used to control them. Experts warn that eventually we may have no effective anthelmintics for certain parasites, a devastating reality that sheep breeders are already facing.

Anthelmintic resistance is, in some respects, inevitable, but indiscriminate and overzealous use of dewormers greatly hastens the process. Deworming your horse based on the calendar alone is an outdated and harmful habit. Instead, resolve to work with your veterinarian to develop a deworming program tailored for your property and the individual horses on it.

Keeping this resolution will require some work and investment. You’ll need to consult with your veterinarian and collect fecal samples for testing. Then you’ll have to craft a master deworming strategy specifically for your situation. In the end, you’ll likely find that you’ll be able to deworm your horses less often, and perhaps some of your horses will never need to be dewormed at all. It’s a nice bonus when doing right by your horse saves you money.

The second phase of this resolution involves managing your manure, specifically in pastures, to decrease the amount of parasite larvae your horses pick up as they graze. Spreading manure on pastures or dragging piles already there is a legitimate manure-management method, but if you’re doing either when environmental conditions favor egg hatching and larvae growth, you’re just seeding your pasture with parasites.

In general, spreading or dragging manure in hot (90 degrees Fahrenheit or higher), dry weather is safest, as the larvae will quickly be killed in the sun. Larvae are less likely to be killed in very cold weather, but prolonged periods of below-freezing temperatures can keep some larvae from maturing to the point they are infective. The worst time to spread and drag manure is in moderate (between 45 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures, particularly after a rain. As appealing as outdoor work may seem in those conditions, resist the urge to hitch up the spreader. Instead, pick up piles in the fields and compost your manure to be spread only after it is thoroughly “cooked.”

4. Learn about toxic plants in your area
It’s a sad fact that the horse owners who know the most about the toxic plants in their area have usually learned the hard way. We all know that certain species are harmful to horses, but we don’t often take the time to inspect our properties for them until a horse is sick and we are looking for the reason why.

Although most horses won’t eat toxic plants unless their pasture has been stripped of all other options, some are curious enough to nibble on anything just to see if it tastes good. And it takes only a mouthful of certain plants to kill a horse.

Your local extension agent is a great resource for learning about toxic plants. You can find one through your nearest land-grant university. Many have regular educational programs specifically on the topic of toxic plants, and some will travel to your farm and take a look around for you. If you can’t find an expert, do some online research or head to the library for resources on the toxic plants in your area. When you walk around your property, bring color pictures to refer to. As you look, remember that horses reach through and over fence lines. If you’re unsure about a plant, take a sample and consult with your veterinarian or even a local nursery for a positive identification.

Ideally, you could remove all toxic plants from your property, roots and all. If that’s not possible, at a minimum fence horses far away from dangerous plants and then be vigilant to ensure clippings or branches don’t come into their reach. You’ll also want to use your newfound knowledge when you trail ride or travel to events—toxic plants can crop up anywhere.

5. Keep regular farrier appointments
If your horse is blessed with good feet, it’s easy to slack off on farrier appointments. And waiting “one more” week to schedule a trim or reset typically won’t adversely affect most horses. But when “one more” becomes two or three and it happens a few times a year, cracks, flares and imbalances can develop in any hoof.

Problems that take only a few weeks to develop in a hoof can take a few months to correct. Considering it takes nearly a year for a hoof to grow out from the coronary band to ground level, a crack that extends “only” two inches up from the toe could take six months to resolve. And hoof imbalances—toes grown too long or one wall higher than the other, for instance—don’t just look funny, they alter the way a horse bears the load of each step and can stress his muscles, joints and tendons. A delayed farrier visit could eventually lead to a much more expensive veterinary visit and long lay-up as a lameness issue is addressed.

An easy first step to keeping your farrier appointments is to schedule them all at once, for the entire year. Most farriers will be happy to line up a regular schedule. Fill in your calendar and then adjust specific days as needed if other issues arise. If you board
at a large barn, your farrier will probably be coming out on a regular basis anyway, which makes scheduling much easier. If you have only a few horses on your own property, it can also help to coordinate with other owners in your area who use the same farrier—by making your appointments on the same day, you’ll have more incentive to stay on schedule. You can also help each other out by holding horses for shoeing, if necessary. Your farrier will be a great resource for coordinating schedules with other horse owners nearby.

6. Feed more forage
We all know that good-quality hay is the foundation of a healthy diet for your horse. Nutritionists recommend that a horse’s diet be at least 2 percent roughage, by weight, which means a 1,100-pound horse needs at least 22 pounds of hay, a little more than half of a typical small square bale every day.

Hay keeps a horse’s digestive system working properly, controls his weight when it’s given instead of high-calorie concentrates, keeps him warm in winter by stoking his metabolism and gives him something to do with his time, reducing the risk he will develop stereotypies or behavior problems. Not to mention it only makes sense to base your horse’s diet on something he naturally evolved to eat.

This is also, in theory, a pretty easy horsekeeping resolution to make and keep. Simply increase the amount of hay you give your horse, right? Not necessarily. Large amounts of hay tossed into a paddock or stall can go uneaten or be ground into the dirt under hooves. It’s a waste of nutrients and money. To make this resolution a lasting management change, you’ll need to make sure you’re feeding more hay in a way it’s most likely to be eaten.

First, make sure you’re buying good-quality hay. This doesn’t mean it has to be packed with nutrients. In fact, if your horse is overweight, a less nutrient-rich forage (combined with a vitamin and mineral supplement, if necessary) is a wise choice. But the hay must be dust-free and fairly leafy. Coarse, stemmy hay won’t be eaten, and moldy hay can cause respiratory problems. Take a critical look at the hay you’ve been feeding and start shopping around for alternative supplies if the quality isn’t all it could be.

Horses can still waste tasty hay, particularly if a large amount is tossed loose onto a stall floor. If you end up picking up hay as you muck, you could try to figure out a way to deliver small amounts more frequently, but returning to the barn mid-afternoon to throw hay doesn’t always mesh well with work schedules. Instead, look into slow-feeders, which not only keep hay off the ground—often while still encouraging a natural heads-down grazing position—but force horses to eat it at a more leisurely pace, mimicking natural grazing patterns.

There are situations in which it’s just impossible to feed more hay. It could be a supply or storage problem, or an older horse whose teeth are too worn down to chew forage. In these cases, you can supply the needed roughage in other forms. Alfalfa pellets and complete feeds, for example, can provide the same amount of forage as traditional hay. They don’t always provide the “chew time” that a flake will, but in some situations these alternatives are an ideal solution to hay problems.

There’s nothing magical about January 1 that makes change any easier, but it’s as good a milestone as any for giving it a try. If you’ve been toying with the idea of adjusting your horsekeeping habits, why not focus on those instead of the same old resolutions. Then, when your horse is happier and healthier than he was last year, you can enjoy your second cup of coffee and messy closets with a clear conscience.

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