If your horse is an easy keeper, he may benefit from a grazing muzzle while on pasture.
When your vet, farrier or best friend looks at your horse and says, “You need to think about using a grazing muzzle,” is your reaction one of surprise and denial? You may have noticed your horse was getting a bit overweight, but it isn’t that bad, right? And aren’t muzzles cruel?
This article will help you decide if and when your horse might really need a grazing muzzle, and if so, how to fit and use it properly for his comfort and happiness.
The nature of weight gain
Horses were designed by nature to be foraging animals. This means they were made to graze on whatever scrub, grass and weeds were available for the greater part of 24 hours a day, with only about four hours of rest. During this time, they are moving constantly, except during relatively short periods of sleep. Modern horsekeeping typically consists of giving horses commercial feeds and rich pastures designed for fattening cattle, along with limited exercise.
The serious side of obesity in horses is that they can become insulin resistant (IR). This makes it very hard for them to lose weight, and they can develop laminitis, a very painful, debilitating disease that can have fatal complications. So it is very important to manage your horse’s weight. Later in life, horses can also acquire Cushing’s disease, which makes them more susceptible to laminitis if they eat too much grass. “Easy keeper” used to be a desirable term, but it is actually much more work to manage and maintain an easy keeper than many other types of horses!
How to tell if your horse needs a muzzle
You don’t need to hire a professional to tell if your horse is overweight – it is easy to learn how to check this yourself. The very best tool in your box is a weight tape from the feed store (often free). Weight charts are readily available and you can compare your horse to those. Horses of a healthy weight have ribs that can be found. The crest of the neck is soft and not excessive in size. No fat pads are present around the tail. Any fat they do have is smooth and soft. If the ribs can’t be felt, the fat is hard or lumpy, and there are extra fat pads present, your horse needs a grazing muzzle, or at least some dietary adjustments.
Using muzzles to control intake
The idea behind using a grazing muzzle is to limit grass intake while allowing the horse pasture time. Pasture time with friends keeps horses active and happy, both mentally and physically. Horses left in small paddocks with no or limited company experience stress and do not get any exercise unless ridden daily. Many horses hate to be muzzled, and while you certainly can’t blame them, you can try to make it more pleasant and safe.
Some horses will not wear a muzzle, and become very depressed or angry. Other horses will remove anything you put on their heads no matter how you tie it on. Still others will hire their friends to remove it. For those types of horses, perhaps nothing will work except confinement, but the more comfortable the muzzle is, the more likely they will keep it on — most of the time.
Fitting a grazing muzzle
Correct muzzle fit is extremely important to prevent rubs and to keep it safely on the horse’s head.
The muzzle needs to allow enough space from front to back so there is room for your horse to chew naturally. This can vary depending on the shape of the head. To check it, watch your horse grazing, or give him a treat and watch carefully. There should be clearance at all times, though it does not have to be a large space. As a starting guide, about two fingers’ space should be present behind the jawbones at the back.
For an average horse, the muzzle should attach to the halter and hang down, leaving about ½” or a bit less between the nose and the bottom of the muzzle. Smaller ponies will need less space.
For the clever “Houdini” horses that are good at escaping, be creative and add straps. A browband or chinstrap is very useful. Be sure to adjust the chinstrap so it goes above the cheek, rather than low on the back of the jaw, to help keep it in place.
Top tips for muzzle comfort
- Try to make the experience as pleasant as possible. Put a treat in the bottom of the muzzle every day as you put it on. Take your horse to some lush lawn grass so he’ll really want to try and eat with the muzzle on, and let him eat for a few minutes so he can figure it out. For the first time, the muzzle should only be on for a couple of hours. The next session can be longer.
- The amount of time a horse needs to wear the muzzle varies greatly. How fat is he? How lush is the grass? Spring grass might require 24/7 muzzling while the horse is in the pasture, or part of the day un-muzzled inside a paddock or stall to give him a break. Later in the summer when the grass dries out, he’ll spend less time wearing the muzzle. Learn how the sugar content of your local grass varies with the season, amount of water on the land, and how long or short the grass is (org has interesting information about grass). Mentally, some horses will need a break from the muzzle, while others do not care.
- Keep the muzzle clean and free from mold. Your horse breathes into it, and some muzzles have poor airflow in hot weather. Look for a product with plenty of breathing room.
- For comfort, use real sheepskin to prevent rubbing. It breathes, sheds water and does not get as messy. Replace it when it gets thin or too dirty.
- Be sure your horse can defend himself in the pasture with a muzzle on. If there is a bully horse that bites or pushes yours around, it is not fair to put a muzzle on the one being bullied.
- Always use a breakaway halter. There are many types on the market, just be sure it is a true breakaway.
- Check the muzzle hole size weekly; frequently, the hole will wear quite a bit larger than you might realize, leaving no grazing restriction.
- If your horse becomes head shy after wearing a muzzle, he may have a headache. Headaches can also occur if the muzzle becomes heavy and wet with dew or rain; just the weight of it may become uncomfortable.
Muzzles are one of the necessary “evils” needed by many modern horses. Muzzles allow better socialization, exercise time with friends, and more freedom to be a horse. The alternative of locking horses alone in stalls or paddocks is much more stressful, and allowing obesity and laminitis to occur is cruel and expensive. So from a balanced perspective, a well-fitted muzzle starts to sound pretty good!