Spring has arrived! As equestrians look forward to leaving the dark winter days behind, there are lots of horse management points to think about. The main one being the transition in feeding required for our horses. Equine Nutrition Lecturer, Hannah Williams from Bishop Burton College has given us some top tips on transitioning feeding routines as we go from Winter to Spring.
Natural Weight Cycles
As a horse comes out of winter, it is expected that they should be slightly ‘ribby’ as they will then regain weight during the spring and summer months. This is due to seasonal fluctuations in the nutritional value of the grass. This is the natural weight loss and weight gain cycle of the horse and owners often make the mistake of keeping their horse the same weight all year round.
The nutritional content of grass changes throughout the year which reminds us of one of the golden rules of feeding.
- Making changes to the horse’s diet gradually. This gives the microbes in the hindgut time to adapt to different feeds and be able to efficiently digest them.
This must be remembered when changing the horse from a diet of predominantly hay/haylage over the winter to increased amounts of grass in the spring.
Be Aware Of Varying Nutritional Values
Horses spend 10-17 hours a day grazing, usually split into 15-20 grazing periods.
Horses can consume over 3% and ponies up to 5% of their body weight in 24 hours when grazing good-quality pasture.
Bear in mind that a horse in average condition only needs to eat 2% of their body weight per day!
Compared to hay, grass has a much higher water content and often higher non-structural carbohydrates such as sugars. Increased intake and varying nutrients can lead to problems such as:
Not to forget the change spring grass can bring about changes in the horses behaviour. We often see increased anxiety or excitability on the ground or when ridden due to ‘spring fever’.
In any field the nutritional value of grass varies from area to area, meaning the value of the whole pasture will be dependent upon the stocking density and variety of herbage and grasses available. We know to be cautious with spring grass, especially if they have been stabled most of the winter. But it is often forgotten that there is another peak of grass growth in the autumn, resulting in high amounts of water-soluble carbohydrates and potentially fructans. During a drought, overgrazing or temperature fluctuations grass may become stressed and which can also lead to high amounts of fructans, which can result in colic and laminitis.
How To Transition From Winter to Spring Grass Safely
- For a horse that has been mostly stabled over winter, gradually build up the amount of turnout – don’t turn out 24/7 initially. Bear in mind that fructan level change depending on the time of day. They are usually highest in late afternoon and evening and lowest in the very early morning.
- Still provide their usual forage source for continuity and to allow the hindgut microbes to adapt to the change in diet. New grass contains a lot of water and little fibre, and horses may crave the fibre found in hay.
- Monitor health, behaviour, and condition closely. Keep an eye out for signs of colic and laminitis.
- Revise your ration – more energy provided by grass & well managed pastures can meet the horses daily nutrient requirements. A concentrate may no longer be necessary.
- If needed, use a grazing muzzle to restrict intake.
- Be especially cautious with overweight horses and horses with known metabolic problems such as Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) or Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). Pony breeds may also be at increased risk. Ensure your body condition score your horse regularly.