Horses can’t eat grass?
Updated: Apr 8, 2021
Most people look forward to spring. But many horse owners fear it, particularly if they have ever found a beloved equine friend swaying uncomfortably back and forth in the pasture or worse, in lying in their stall unable to get up.
Mention the all too well-known terms founder, laminitis, unsoundness, lameness, and the culprit, “Spring Grass,” immediately comes to mind. But, we have always been told that horses are supposed to eat grass. So how can grass be the culprit causing this condition? These problems are almost exclusively seen in domesticated horses, and tend to increase the further from the wild model our horses exist. Let’s look at how wild free-ranging horses live for some explanations and solutions.
Wild horses encounter the same rich grasses as domesticated horses, but without the onset of hoof maladies. Why doesn’t spring grass affect them in the same way? Wild horses are constantly on the move, whether escaping predators or competition from other bands of wild horses. Most wild horses move up to 30 miles a day, constantly nibbling grass and other plants as they go. Their stomachs never get too full or too empty, but rather stay in a balanced state all the time.
On the other hand, many domesticated horses spend much of their time confined to stalls and are turned out on grass only for short periods of time, ironically often out of fear of spring grass. When this occurs they gorge themselves and then return to their stalls to digest it. The problem is that once the grass has passed out of their stomachs, it leaves behind chemicals and bacteria looking for something else to digest.
A steady flow of food would regulate these chemicals, but an empty gut allows them to be reabsorbed into the blood stream where they are concentrated in the feet. There they act as toxins to the robust yet delicate connective tissue known as laminae. This causes inflammation, further blocking the flow of blood, and generating pain. Depending on the level of toxicity, the result can be catastrophic. Laminitis is inflammation of the laminae and results in varying degrees of separation of the hoof wall from the inner structures of the hoof.
What can horse owners do? In the spring if you see any of the above symptoms, immediately call your veterinarian. Encourage movement by your horse where possible. Regulate all food consumption to mimic the examples set by wild horses. Allow for multiple feedings of shorter duration. If horses must be stalled, be sure they have adequate hay and water to ensure that their stomachs are never completely empty. Recovery is greatly enhanced by ensuring your horse’s feet are properly trimmed, as overgrown toes will increase the pain the horse is experiencing.
If your horse has ever foundered, it should not be freely turned out on grass at any time of the year without some form of regulation (Example: Grazing muzzle).
Not all horses respond to spring grass in the same way, even horses kept on the same property. There are more details to consider, such as the rate at which the horses consume the grass, and their ability to deal with systemic overloads of toxins. We will deal with these additional considerations in a future article.
Thom Willis is owner of Wild Ways Natural Equine Care in Old Fort. He is a natural hoof care and wild ways natural equine care professional. Contact information is FB: wildways.equine, https://wildways-equine.com, 828-273-4643.