Horses and Spring Grass - How Will You Manage?

Storm Gareth has left fallen trees, blown over bins and rogue plant pots in its wake. Your hay is decorating the yard, your buckets are lost forever – and your horse’s eyes are on stalks. But the wind may not be the only thing sending your horse looney. The warm weather earlier in the month, combined with a heavy rainfall, has already caused an influx in grass growth.

It is important to understand grass growth behaviours; carbohydrates are stored in the base of the plant and are mobilised into the growing grass as sugars, with sugars used as a fuel for growing grass. Your horse grazes, ingesting these sugars and making him behave like a child locked in a sweet shop. With blue smarties. And a puppy. Without an adult.

Sugars in grass are a complex issue; they are used for growth and respiration but can also be stored. Even after a drought, heavy rainfall will cause an influx of growth. Even colder weather can cause grass to store the sugars – below 4°C, grass will not grow, and sugars remain. This seemingly never-ending supply of sugar can pose problems for horse owners, as restricting sugar intake can be difficult.

The most popular methods of reducing sugar are to turn out late at night, when sunlight isn’t present to create new sugars. Another method is to feed hay before turnout; it satisfies the need to chew and provides fibre to help digestion; fructans, found in grass, aren’t digested in the stomach – they pass into the hindgut, causing sugars and their bacteria to produce lactic acid. Feeding hay may help to balance digestion in the horse and minimise the risk of colic. Some owners may find that using a grazing muzzle is effective, reducing the intake of grass and therefore the potentially damaging effects it has. This, and indeed a slow introduction to grass may help to accumulate the horse to a change of diet. It may also seem sensible to keep horses away from long grass, however short grass can be more damaging. Long grass allows the horse to crop the tips, however short grass forces the horse to eat lower down, where the sugar is stored. It is therefore important to wait for the grass to grow well before turning out; over 6-8cm is the optimum length to provide to your horse. These methods do, of course all depend on the horse, owner, yard and grass availability. Make sure you pick a method that works best around these factors to optimise your horse’s health.

The ever-changing weather certainly doesn’t help the situation; however, the grass is growing, and your horse will feel the effects if not correctly managed. Save yourself the worry of laminitis, colic and general upset by having an idea of how the growing grass can affect your horse and have an action plan in place, ready for Spring to really hit.