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How to Avoid Trouble on Spring Grass

by Dennis Summers

Just as there are variables on managing pasture there are variables as to horses reaction to it. Most all horses energy level and reactiveness are amped up by too much early grass. In my case the 2 extreme ends of the spectrum are Jagger and Peach. Both good performing horses, but polar opposites far as temperament and body type.

Jagger is a big, long muscled and easy going type who sleepwalks through life. When he is “high” on spring grass it just brings his energy up to a level 5 or so. With high octane feed he gets in good flesh and has decent energy. He will put out more training without me having to nag him to work, all good. With his build he does best on twice the groceries and thrives on high octane feed like pasture and concentrate with few negative affects. He has been out on our pasture str8 through the year with no ill affects. He does, just like all our horses work every day, did I say every day? Yes, I said every day, with the exception of a week or so post race and a day after a really hard training day. That is made possible by our euro walker, a subject for another day. In fact, the only thing I can think of negative pasture does for him is affect his recoveries at a race if I don’t dry lot for a week or so prior. Jagger is the easiest type horse to manage, just pour the feed, pasture and work to him.

Peach on the other hand has been the hardest horse to manage we have ever had on the place. I really think it would be impossible to manage her without the walker. What makes her hard to manage? Her tie up tendencies. It has taken years to dial in her pasture management and work once she gets fit to prevent tie up symptoms. She is a high energy, race bred, bunchy muscled little mare, all possible contributing factors. One of the most naturally gifted athletes we have ever worked with, another contributing factor I think. Every tie up prone horse we have dealt with was an exceptional athlete, and most every one has been a mare! My theory- these type horses take energy storage to a really extreme level, great for performance but dangerous for tie up. With a horse like this the old “feed a horse for the work they did, not the work they are going to do” is critical. With a horse like Peach though, u can get in trouble even when u are doing everything right!

The most important lesson I learned from dealing with Peach, and horses like Peach is to be proactive and start early in the prevention of tie up and tie up symptoms. Once the syndrome starts it creates a cycle that can be really hard to break. You may be thinking you have never had a tie up problem. That may be true, but I doubt it. Remember that time at an early race when your horse was really high at the start and got a sweat really quick? Maybe even was a little tight and sketchy at the first vet check but improved as the day went on and finished ok, maybe just ok. Maybe another time your horse got a cramp that worked out or didn’t. Maybe your horses pulse hung when he normally comes down quicker. In my mind all The above could have been subtle signs of tie up. I contend there are many degrees of tie up symptoms, especially in the Arabian horse. They don’t have to lock up to be feeling the affects of tie up. I will get into management and prevention later.

All our other horses fall somewhere in between Jagger and Peach, our 2 extremes. Experience, sometimes bad experience will tell you eventually where your horse fits. I would suggest when in doubt go the safe route pasture management wise which would be less pasture, more hay, more work. Tie up and performance wise anyway.

Above I touched on the most extreme affects of too much pasture for the distance horse. There are many others-
-horses tend to get heavy on pasture, u ever seen a tubby high level distance runner?
-some horses I think get laminitis signs from excessive pasture. Some of our mystery lameness I think is for this reason. The signs seem to go away when dry logged. Was it the confinement or the no grass? Maybe both.
-slower recoveries seem to be a side affect of to much pasture.
I’m sure there is a bunch of other stuff I will think of later too.

So what are the pasture benefits?

– it is free feed! Well, not really but u know what I mean. It is just there for the taking and when u have 10 hungry distance horses that is always a factor.
-horses stay active turned out and up here when they are turned out there is gonna be grass. With our young Jagger clones leading the way our herd races up and down this mountain multiple times a day- great for heart, lungs and legs.

Obviously there are different stages of pasture that require different management. Right now is maybe the best time for our horses as the mountain is entirely covered with grass- an inch high! They really have to graze all day to get much and are hungry for hay when I bring em some- perfect. Long as they get regular work and work to a sweat every other day we are golden.

A couple weeks of warm weather and it will get 3 inches high and I will have to manage em more. The jagger types can stay out  But 3 of the mares will have to be more or less full dry lot time til the grass matures. If working hard and work to a sweat every other day they may see an hour or so pasture daily. Like I said earlier, for horses like these 3 mares getting em off pasture before they show even 1 tie up sign is critical for us. Once it starts it is a hard cycle to break.

Now fast forward to around 4th of July, around here anyway. Grass is high and is mature. Still green, but I think most of the starch is out of it. Now with full work everyone can get turned back out. There is still the danger of ’em getting to heavy but that is easy to see and remedy- less food!

Ok, we went over quickly the types of horses and their reaction to pasture. We quickly went over the 3 stages of pasture-
-early spring grass still to short to eat much
– early spring grass in danger zone
– mature standing grass
In fall up here the grass will green up a bit late but doesn’t seem to have any real food value and we have had good luck leaving all the horses out, long as they are still working hard.

Here is where your horsemanship needs to kick in. There are no wrong or right answers, it all depends on your horse, your environment and the other contributing factors involved. Carefully experiment, observe your horse and their performance and go from there. Just always keep in mind grass, particularly spring grass is a powerful feed that needs to be carefully managed!


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