How to transition your horse to grass pasture
If ever there was an article without easy answers, THIS IS IT. There is no “magic formula” to transition a horse to grass, but we can apply some logical steps to help your horse acclimate to grass. A horse plus pasture is an individual program with many factors to consider, so I will preface this article by saying a few things.
- Talk to your veterinarian about transitioning to grass pasture. I have seen enough laminitis to know that grass pasture and laminitis are related. Finding out if your horse has a metabolic issue is critical BEFORE you let them eat all of the salad even if they have no outward signs of Cushing’s or Insulin Resistance.
- Go slow and steady. Increasing the time allotted slowly over time is a good way to do things. This is better for their digestion! Consider it similar to starting at the gym. Are you going to bench 300 on the first day? Nope – you need to work up to it.
- When in doubt, use a muzzle! Even the picture-perfect healthy horse can benefit from a muzzle. Horses are known as eating geniuses that will scarf down all of the salad in a fixed amount of time. They KNOW how long their turnout is, and they can eat accordingly. Read this study about ponies and grazing here.
Horses quickly learn to eat with grazing muzzles. This is the Greenguard Equine Muzzle.
Things to consider when transitioning your horse to grass.
- What time of year is it? Laminitis typically peaks in spring when grass comes in with a bang. BUT – fall is sometimes more dangerous for horses for two reasons. Fall grass is stressed – temperatures are inconsistent, there are bouts of rain and sun with cold mornings, and it’s trying to seed to come back the next year. Combine that with a horse’s naturally fluctuating hormones in the fall, and laminitis is high risk.
Salad for days.
- How metabolically healthy is your horse? Cushing’s and Insulin Resistance warrant limited turnouts on grass pasture or none at all. Also, something to consider….. the metabolically compromised horse can inflict much potential damage in one hour without a muzzle. But a few hours with a muzzle, and he might be fine.
- How is the barn schedule? If the only option is them going out for 8 hours, with no exceptions, you may want to adjust your schedule to allow a gradual build-up. Muzzles help in this situation, too. Maybe the barn turns your horse out, and you bring them in, or vice versa.
- How long has it been since they last grazed on pasture? Horses removed from pasture for some time may still need acclimation. At my barn, the weather is a huge factor in how much we limit or allow grazing. My first winter there, the weather was so wet and frozen that the pastures were downright dangerous. So, the horses were in dry lots for six weeks. The first day back on grass was for one hour, muzzles on. From then on, an hour or so at a time with muzzles, or smaller increments without muzzles.
- How much time should you give them daily to build up? Your vet can best help you here. In the spring, it might be 10 minutes of that thick lush stuff, then a few days later, 20 minutes, gradually increasing by 10-minute increments. In less risky times, it might be an hour at a time over a few weeks.
- Pay attention to the horse that is out on pasture all the time. Yes, they’re used to it, but as the spring and fall bring dangers, their routine may need to be shortened or modified to balance the increased risk.
Dry lots are fantastic, too.
- A muzzle can benefit even the perfectly healthy, young, and fit horse. Muzzles are not cruel. They allow the horse to slow his eating roll, giving his GI system time to process the starches and sugars of grass over time. Part of the laminitis risk comes from how much a horse eats in what time. For example – the horse that eats 15 lbs of grain during an escape mission, versus the horse that eats 15 pounds of grain over four meals in one day.
- And to be perfectly frank here, we love to treat our horses with food. Many horses live happy and amazing lives without pasture, and many horses live happy and amazing lives without hay.
When getting your horse used to grass pasture, it’s definitely a case that warrants some individual attention and care. And when in doubt, perhaps go a bit slower and have your horse wear that grazing muzzle.
The best muzzle in the land – order one here! Also in raspberry and black colors.