Important Tools in Equine Weight Management

Mar 27, 2023

“Easy keepers” are horses who require fewer calories than average to maintain their body condition. However, true easy keepers are often anything but easy to manage. Easy keepers require extra care and attention to prevent obesity, which can lead to serious health conditions such as laminitis. A grazing muzzle is a useful tool in controlling forage intake for these horses while still allowing them to socialize with their herd mates.

A grazing muzzle is a plastic or web “cup” that fits over a horse’s muzzle. There is a small hole in the bottom of the muzzle, which limits the amount of forage a horse can grab in a single mouthful. Muzzles come in two basic varieties: all-in-one halter/muzzle combos, and separate muzzles made to be attached to the horse’s regular halter. Whichever model you choose, it is important to make sure that the halter is a breakaway or thin leather variety, in case the horse gets tangled in a tree or other object in its pasture. You should also check the halter and muzzle daily for fit and signs of rubbing. Some muzzle manufacturers sell neoprene padding to be used on areas of the muzzle that rub. Self-adhesive bandage material or duct tape is also handy for this purpose – using a brightly colored bandage or tape can even help you locate the muzzle if your horse loses it in the pasture.
Why muzzle instead of housing the horse in a stall or dry lot? Horses kept in small paddocks or stalls spend very little time moving around, unlike pastured horses, who move consistently all day long. With a horse that needs to lose or maintain weight, every calorie burned is important. Horses are herd animals, and most are therefore much happier turned out with their herd than isolated in a small area. Muzzling allows the horse to graze continuously, reducing the risk of gastric ulcers when compared to meal feeding. Using a grazing muzzle also provides a more reliable restriction of a horse’s forage intake than short-duration grass turnout. While grazing muzzles may reduce a horse’s intake by as much as 85%, most horses that are turned out for only a few hours at a time will consume just as much forage as horses that are out 24/7!

As with any other change in a horse’s diet, a grazing muzzle should be introduced gradually. Some horses object strongly to wearing a muzzle at first and may try to rub or paw the muzzle off. Place a small treat inside the muzzle every time you put it on the horse to make the process more pleasant for both the horse and yourself. Other horses may become very frustrated when their initial grazing attempts are thwarted and may stop trying to eat at all for a period of time. You may need to feed the horse a few blades of grass through the hole to help him learn how the muzzle works. Start by putting your horse’s muzzle on for only a short period of time and monitoring him for signs of distress or confusion. Most horses quickly figure out how to graze while wearing a muzzle, but some take more time than others. Keep in mind, too, that your horse probably won’t be able to lick a salt block while wearing a muzzle, so you will need to either offer him muzzle-free time to access salt or top-dress his feed with loose salt daily.
Very few horses enjoy wearing a grazing muzzle, but most will learn to accept one after a careful introduction. Grazing muzzles restrict a horse’s forage intake while still allowing it to socialize and graze in a more natural herd setting, encouraging movement, which will further help keep your horse’s weight down through increased calorie burn. Paying careful attention to the fit and condition of the muzzle is important to ensure your horse’s comfort and safety.
For more content like this, check out the latest issue of The Cooperator.

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