Winter hung on a bit longer than usual this year, with many nights below freezing well into March. While these temps may have kept the bugs at bay for our Mid-south horses a while longer, the spring grasses were not deterred. Lush spring growth is well known to contain high levels of fructan, a plant sugar that is not digested by the stomach or small intestine in the horse.
When excess fructan arrives in the hindgut it can interfere with normal fiber digestion, thus leading to a cascade of detrimental events. Colic and laminitis can result from a horse eating too much fast-growing spring grass.
While many horses can graze to their heart’s content, some are more susceptible to the ill effects of high fructan- grasses. Horses with Insulin Resistance and Equine Metabolic Syndrome require careful management this time of year. Though relegating your horse to a dirt lot may be necessary, many horses can enjoy a few hours turnout on pasture with modifications. Here are a few tips to help keep your horse safe during spring turnout.
Understanding plant growth will give you the knowledge needed to safely put horses on pasture. During daylight hours the plant produces and stores fructan via photosynthesis. Once the sun goes down the plant then uses that fructan (sugar) to grow. Grasses are lowest in fructan from midnight to about 10:00 am, so turning your horse out for a few hours in the early morning will lower the level of fructan consumed. Grazing muzzles are also an option, with new designs on the market in the past few years. Be sure to remove the muzzle when you return your horse to its dry lot and check for any skin rubs. It’s best to start with a short amount of time (1-2 hours) then gradually increase as your horse’s gut adjusts to the change in diet.
Proper pasture management is also key. Higher levels of fructans are found in the lower stem, rapidly growing new growth, overgrazed pastures, and pastures stressed from drought and poor soils. Pasture rotation and soil management are useful tools in providing safe pasture turnout for sensitive horses.
A few hours of carefully planned daily turnout will keep your horse’s mind and body happy this spring!