Strip-grazing best to keep horses trim, study finds

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The weight-management benefits of feeding horses and ponies behind a regularly moved portable fence have been highlighted in fresh research.

The findings come amid growing concern among veterinarians and horse welfare organisations over growing rates of obesity, which have been found to be as high as 70% in some populations of ponies.

Put simply, horses usually get fat because they receive more calories in their diet than they burn through activities such as exercise, keeping warm and the daily energy required to keep them alive (basal metabolic rate).

Excess weight increases the risk of laminitis, which is why it is important to keep grass intake under control.

The latest research compares strip grazing to two other restricted grazing practices during Britain’s grass-growing season.

It was conducted by Annette Longland in collaboration with equine feed manufacturer Spillers through the Waltham Equine Studies Group.

For the research, three groups of four ponies that had been equally matched for weight, height, and, secondarily, body condition score, were placed in paddocks with a herbage yield equivalent to 1.5% (dry weight) of the ponies’ body weight per day for 28 days.

They were assigned to one of three grazing practices:

  • No other restriction;
  • A lead fence placed across the width of the paddock to allow fresh grass to be accessed each day by moving it 1/28th of the paddock length daily;
  • Strip grazed with both a lead and a back fence with the back fence being moved the same distance as the lead fence daily.

The ponies were weighed and body condition scored weekly.

Body weight gains were significantly higher for the ponies without any grazing restriction but there was no significant difference in weight gain for those with the lead fence and those with the lead fence and back fence.

The benefits of strip grazing are highlighted in fresh research. Photo: Sarah Shephard

“The ponies with gradual access to pasture via strip grazing had significantly lower bodyweight gains than their counterparts who were allowed free access to the entire 28-day herbage allocation,” said nutritionist Clare Barfoot, marketing and research and development director at Spillers.

“If you are planning on turning your horse out to grass during this current (Covid-19) situation or at any other time, it’s certainly worth considering installing a strip grazing fence and moving it once a day.”

A horse at pasture wearing a grazing muzzle.
A pony wearing a grazing muzzle.

The next stage of research includes looking at other aspects of strip grazing such as pasture wear and tear and activity levels in order to be able to give further advice as to the choice of strip grazing method.

To help horse owners get through these testing times safely, Barfoot has put together the following tips:

  • Install a strip grazing system: Smaller paddocks are best to limit grass availability, but the fence should be moved daily;
  • Turn out at night: Overnight typically grass will contain less sugar and fructan (Water Soluble Carbohydrate);
  • Beware of restricting time at grass: Ponies, in particular, learn quickly that they need to maximise their time eating and can consume 40% of their daily intake in just 3 hours;
  • Use fewer rugs: Fewer rugs or no rugs at all will encourage a horse to burn off a few extra pounds keeping warm;
  • Try a grazing muzzle: A grazing muzzle can reduce intake by up to 80% but it must be properly fitted, allow for drinking and you must let the horse or pony get used to it before leaving it on for long periods. They should never be left on for 24 hours a day. Continue to monitor body weight as some horses and ponies can still gain weight while wearing a grazing muzzle;
  • Feed an alternative safe source of forage: For horses and ponies at very high risk consider removing them from pasture altogether and feeding them a suitable forage/short chopped fibre, preferably one that has been approved by the Laminitis Trust;
  • Up the exercise: Regular exercise will help keep a horse’s waistline in check and support a healthy metabolism.

Specific advice on feeding a horse or pony prone to laminitis can be obtained in Britain by calling the Spillers Care-Line on 01908 226626.

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