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Introducing horses to spring pasture

Your horse will get a tummy ache if he eats too much too soon

You know how your digestive system feels when you’ve eaten too much rich food? Your horses can relate. When first put out on pasture in the spring after winter confinement, their metabolism isn’t accustomed to the lush forage, leading to uncomfortable side effects.

Ann Swinker is an Extension horse specialist at Penn State University. She says sudden changes in diet affect the ratio and proportion of microbes in the digestive system.

"If you change from a high fiber diet to a higher protein-higher-sugar-starch diet, you’re going to change those microorganisms. And by changing them quickly changes the products that they produce that also affects the whole metabolism of the horse," says Swinker. "Some of those microorganisms are dying off and producing microtoxins in the gut that can cause other metabolic issues."

For example, if the horses have been on a plain grass hay diet and are suddenly turned out onto lush alfalfa, their digestive system gets all out of whack. They become gassy and produce loose stools, and it could also lead to laminitis.

Swinker recommends slowly acclimating a horse to pasture over a period of about two-weeks.

"I would hand-graze that horse for like 10-15 minutes maybe in the morning and do it again in the evening to try to have the diet the animal’s on intermixed with the new introduction of a more lush product," she says. "And then I would increase that to like a half-hour, each day keep adding a little more."

Swinker says the best way to tell how the horse is handling pasture grass is by inspecting the manure. It should look like healthy “road apples” – not too hard and not runny.

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