Dr. Joyce Harman offers tips to keep your horse healthy during summer grazing

There’s no denying that summer is here, bringing with it the changing responsibilities of a horse owner. You might change out troughs more often to keep your horse’s water cool and fresh, or you might cold hose him on those brutal July afternoons to bring a bit of relief. What you might not do, though, is think about the hidden dangers of summer grass.

“Most horse owners believe their horses are only at risk for grazing-associated laminitis during the spring and early summer when grass growth is most intense,” said integrative and complementary veterinarian Dr. Joyce Harman, founder of Harmany Equine. “The truth is, though, we need to remain vigilant all summer long, as sugar content in the grass changes with the weather.”

All horses, but particularly those with metabolic issues, are susceptible to fructans, a type of sugar, in the grass. If these sugars pass into the hind gut before they’re digested, they can kick off a process that will cause laminae to fail, leading to a laminitic attack. Metabolic horses also have a difficult time using glucose, or sugar, as fuel and store excess sugar as fat.

“The horses who have metabolic, laminitic or obesity issues will get progressively worse over the course of the summer,” said Dr. Harman.

To keep your horse safe and healthy on summer grass, follow Dr. Harman’s suggestions:

Don’t overgraze. Most horse owners don’t realize that the greatest concentration of sugar in grass lies in the three inches closest to the ground. If you allow your horse to overgraze, he’s getting way more than his fair share of sugar.

On the contrary, tall, course grass is less rich, so your horse can safely eat much more-just be mindful because he can get much more with each bite.

Grab a muzzle. Muzzles allow a horse to behave normally in the pasture in terms of exercise and socialization without running the risk of over-grazing.

Dr. Harman recently designed a state-of-the art muzzle that is totally customizable, from molding it to a horse’s head shape to determining how much, or how little, grass is available to a horse. Her Harmany Muzzle is also made of a medical grade plastic with Kevlar® fibers, making it much lighter than other available muzzles without sacrificing durability.

Watch the weather. Though most bouts of laminitis happen in spring and early summer when grass growth is most intense, the weather plays a large role in the sugar content of the grass.

Keep these things in mind:
– Typically, your horse is safest with the standard hot, dry weather that’s common in the mid-late summer months.
– Grass that’s stressed (either overgrazed or in a drought) will be high in sugar.
– Rain leads to rapid plant growth (and increased sugar content), particularly after a drought.
– Unseasonably cool temperatures (either a dip in the evening or several days of much below-average temperatures) will increase sugar content in grass.

Strategize turnout. On a typical summer day, fructan levels in the grass peak in the sunniest part of the day (usually around noon), slowly declining throughout the evening, and hitting the lowest point in the late evening/early morning hours. If you want to maximize your horse’s healthy grazing, let him out to graze just before you head to bed, then bring him back in early in the morning.

Assess your horse. If you see your horse multiple times daily, you’re much less likely to notice unhealthy changes in his body until it’s too late. Consider using a weight tape every 10 to 14 days to ensure he remains at a healthy weight. If he’s gaining, adjust your grazing plan accordingly.

It’s also a good idea to feel his fat pads (neck crest, croup, ribs, etc.) weekly. If the texture of the fat changes from soft and pliable to hard and lumpy, he needs to lose weight.