Guest Blog – Is your horse Spring ready? (part 1)

This month I’m exited to share this great piece by Catherine Howes of UniquEquine Equine Therapy. It’s a wonderfully comprehensive article on the points to consider when supporting your horse in getting ready for Spring. Part 2 follows next week and includes a great offer, so you won’t want to miss it!

For the majority of horses, the winter routine and lifestyle is quite different to that of the summer months.

With the shorter days and colder weather there are many environmental and management factors that come into play that affect our horses… and in more ways than we may first think.

These include:

  • Reduced activity – turnout/ exercise
  • Less interaction with others – socialising/ grooming etc
  • More time wearing rugs
  • Change in diet
  • Less time in a grazing posture
  • Ground conditions
  • Less sunlight

Each of these will have a small to significant impact on your horse, depending on the individual and their circumstances. However, there are things we can do as horse owners to counterbalance and minimise these issues, and keep our horses happy and healthy into spring.

Reduced activity means the body is used less. The muscles, ligaments, tendons all become shortened and less elastic. The joints open and close less and go through less range of motion.

This all leads to stiffness, reduced mobility and the potential for injury is increased.

Alongside this other systems slow down… metabolism – leading to potential weight gain. The circulatory system is less active, so the feed of nutrients and oxygen in the blood is slowed. This can affect healing and detoxing in the body.

Less interaction with others has varying results for our horses.

The stimulation provided by the social interaction is so important to horses. Socialising/ grooming/ playing/ observing …even the ability to ‘be’ in their place in the pecking order.

Depending on their management, they may have contact with others, and take the opportunity to mutual groom. This isn’t always simply about ‘itching that scratch’ but can be a way for them to help each other out with a sore or tight spot.

Although it can look as though horses do very little other than graze, being flight animals they are constantly aware of and reacting to their environment.

So, not only does their physical activity become lessened, but also their mental stimulation.

I am sure many of you are already thinking ‘No wonder horses have stable vices…’

So, the more that can be done to keep the horse’s brain as well as it’s body active, the better for both physical and psychological reasons.

A few ways of doing this are –

  • As much turn out as possible, or as your horse is happy with – not all like being out in the dark and cold!
  • Regular exercise – ridden/ in hand/ lunging/ long reining/ loose schooled/ led from another etc.
  • Grooming – a fantastic activity, and quite underrated for physical and mental health.
    • It improves blood flow, relieves tension and increases relaxation.
    • Brushing your horse mimics the mutual grooming  interaction between horses.  
    • It gives an opportunity to get to know and monitor changes to your horse’s body.  
    • Grooming is a lovely bonding and connecting experience.
  • Hand grazing – if there is no opportunity for turnout, lead your horse to a tasty patch of grass and let it graze, especially if there are hedgerows and other greenery for him to forage, and he can pick out what he wants and needs.
  • If you horse is stabled, try to ensure that a constant (or regularly replenished) source of forage is available. This is better for their digestion rather than to have long gaps with nothing to eat – an empty stomach is more susceptible to ulcers. It also helps to relieve boredom.

Horses are very sociable animals, and are herd animals. Even if they seem ‘ok’ on their own, many of them will internally stress if kept in solitude. Having another equine, or even a goat/ sheep/ alpaca (!) will have a huge influence on your horse’s well being. As mentioned earlier, they are flight animals and so constantly are in a degree of fear, even though they’ve never seen a predator in their field, they rely on other members of their herd to alert them of any danger. If they are alone, they never have the down time and relaxation they do in a group when someone else is on watch.

Throughout our colder, wetter months we often choose, or need, to rug our horses. Whether it is for warmth and protection against the elements, maintaining condition or simply cleanliness, most horses wear rugs.

I wholly appreciate these needs and think that, on the whole, with the environment horses are in, rugs are helpful and have many benefits.

However, there are a few downsides to wearing them, especially for prolonged periods:

  • Pressure – usually on the withers. It is essential that this area is checked regularly for sores, heat, irritation, hair loss etc. Frequently removing the rug, and, if necessary, interchanging them as the weight and cut of the rug will put pressure on different areas.
  • The shoulders are another area that is prone to rubbing.
  • Restricted movement – even with the best fitting rug, the horse’s movement will be slightly reduced or altered. With poorly fitting, tight, heavy or multiple rugs, this is significantly worsened.

Also inevitable over these months, is the change in diet.

The nutritional value in the grass will decrease in winter. Apart from potential weight loss and the loss of some nutrients, horses don’t tend to display too many ill-effects from this reduction. However, with the warmer weather, sunshine and longer daylight hours, comes rich grass… delicious, sugary ‘goodness’! And the horses love it!

This brings it’s own cluster of potential problems –

  • Laminitis
  • Colic
  • Azoturia
  • Weight gain
  • Behavioural issues.

With the reduced hours of turn out, horses adopt the grazing posture far less. They are anatomically and physiologically designed to spend hours a day with their neck and back open, head down with their jaw in a vertical position.

In their natural environment horses will cover 30 – 40 miles per day. Much of this will be at the walk, foraging and grazing, meandering along. This is done in the aforementioned posture. This posture keeps the horse’s body in great shape

topline naturally open, allowing more range of movement in the axial and appendicular skeleton and also the jaw is in correct alignment. In this position, the horse will be less susceptible to unnatural, uneven and problematic tooth wear.

With the head down and the jaw vertical to the ground the upper and lower jaw line up at their optimal position. Biting and chewing is easier, the correct alignment also means that the TMJ (temperomandibular joint) is working as it is designed, so there is less compression/tension, and the masseter (large muscle covering the lower jaw) is less worked.

The masseter is the strongest muscle in the horse’s body (per square inch) and is a huge pattern setter. Therefore, if this is affected negatively, it will have significant knock on/ secondary effects throughout the body.

Stabled horses are frequently fed from nets, or above the ground which takes away their natural posture and function. If we can recreate as much of this natural positioning for our horses, we can eliminate many issues.

Hay / feed given on the floor, while messy, is so much better for their body. If they waste some in their bed, try feeding less initially until they get the idea!

Also the positioning of their food is relevant.

Ground conditions can be testing … this last 8 months or so we have seen the driest, hottest summer in years. With this glorious weather, came the hard ground….and it was relentless!

While in many ways it was absolute bliss for horses and their owners, the going did take its toll. As a therapist I saw many horses still showing signs of being jarred up right into the winter months. I also found horses struggling with more muscle / body fatigue related issues as the hard ground was a constant source of concussion. Added to this, horses were lying down for less time outdoors, as it just isn’t comfortable lying on ground that hard!

Following that, the inevitable happened and the rain came… bringing with it slippery, greasy conditions; and the increased risk of overstrain, tears, etc to muscles and other soft tissues.

Both the jarring up, and the decreased range of motion from less activity can heighten the chance of injury. Therefore, it is important for us to reduce these risks as much as we can.

Therapy for your horse – to identify and alleviate any issues they are having – includes:

  • Stretching
  • Exercise
  • Grooming
  • Regular turnout
  • Prevention of getting too cold
  • Good diet

Like us, less exposure to the sun can cause the horse to feel subdued, depressed and lethargic.

The sun has physical and psychological benefits…  Vitamin D absorption, warmth on stiff / aching muscles and that feel good factor as well.

When there is a sunny day, take off the rug for a while, or even just the neck cover.. allow your horse to feel the sun’s rays on their skin.

Therapy for your horse can provide many benefits…

  • Improved relaxation
  • Improved comfort
  • Improved circulation
  • Improved immunity
  • Improved digestive heath and metabolism
  • Improved nerve function
  • Improved muscle tone/ evenness/ mass
  • Improved range of motion
  • Improved flow of energy around the body
  • Improved connection with body, mind and soul

Therapy can also

  • Reduce stress
  • Reduce chance of injury
  • Aid recovery and rehabilitation
  • Release emotional trauma

It is also a great way to have your horse monitored if treated routinely; issues can be detected and dealt with quickly and more easily.

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