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As spring is on its way it's essential that we have in place a management system for the horse and pony that is prone to laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome, and obesity. Research is always developing, and many studies have shown that the equine thrives off being able to express natural behaviour. The domesticated horse has often been deprived from expressing natural behaviours because of human choice. Many owners restrict the horse from having any social contact because they want to limit the risk of injury and are often housed singularly in stables and fields. Housing in stables often causes behavioural problems such as stereotypies and frustration. Some equines are housed within groups two or more because the owners perceive this to be more ‘natural’ and that therefore believe welfare is improved. It is essential to know that horses are individuals just like humans and what may work for some does not always work for others.
An option to allow horses to roam freely and express some natural behaviours is the use of a grazing muzzle. A grazing muzzle is commonly used to limit the amount of forage intake of the equine. The grazing muzzle allows the equine to freely roam in a field and to have some social contact with others. This is a great option for a horse that needs turnout but may have obesity problems. Compared with stabling, the grazing muzzle allows the horse to move around when eating and to have more ventilation for diseases such as equine asthma. This may be also very beneficial to horses that have arthritis and need a degree of movement to help with pain and stiffness. Furthermore, the grazing muzzle allows for salvia composition during mastication of feed which is the main function that allows food to be broken down correctly without causing choke and Equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS).
Pasture turnout provides many psychological benefits for the horse including having options to move freely, find different tastes from grasses and to be able to express play behaviours. Turnout can however result in uncontrollable and large amounts of forage intake which can lead to obesity and health problems. If not managed correctly this may lead to diseases such as Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and Laminitis. This disease can be extremely painful and therefore are compromising welfare. Each horse has individual needs and must be managed accordingly.
A horse with EMS will need restricted diet but may also need turnout to satisfy psychological needs. The ethology of the horse shows that they need to be able express natural behaviours such as the fight or flight response. This would be limited if the horse is housed in a stable unable to respond and therefore compromising welfare.
The grazing muzzle should be fitted correctly and introduced slowly to limit frustration, discomfort and fear. It is suggested that the grazing muzzle should not be worn for long periods of time as this can be extremely frustrating for the horse and may cause sores on the face, similarly, to wearing any equipment for excessive periods of time. The grazing muzzle should be used on moderately long grass for correct usage as short grass can cause the horse to wear down their incisor teeth which can cause more health issues.
As horses can binge eat in a very short period of time it may mean that the grazing muzzle may not suit every horse. Options that may be useful may include wearing a grazing muzzle throughout the day and the stable the horse overnight, as this means the owner is able to manage forage intake. This would mean the horse would have correct nutrition management and psychological benefits from turnout. Other options may include strip grazing. This is where the field is split off and only a small amount of grass is available to the horse. This however may not work for some horses that jump electric fencing. Track systems are another option as this allows the horse a lot of movement, but you need a lot of space and depending on where your horse is kept it may not be available to you. A grazing muzzle is a very cheap option to help manage weight.
When we look at welfare, we often use the ethical frameworks such as the five freedoms and five domains. By looking at these frameworks we can consider what the positive and negatives are of each choice we make for the horse. Lets look at the five domains and relate this to using a grazing muzzle.
A grazing muzzle allows access to food and water but in a restricted way. This allows the horse to receive correct nutrition and limit the potential impact of obesity. This suggests that welfare is not compromised and provides an option for horses who need restricted diet. However, some horses may find a grazing muzzle frustrating as it is restricting the amount of grass ingested and may not provide sufficient psychological enjoyment of chewing and therefore grass intake.
The muzzle allows the horse to stay out in the field to enjoy the benefits of free roaming and interaction with other horses. Welfare may be compromised by the fact that the grazing muzzle will stop the horse to be able to physically groom another horse with its lips and teeth. This could cause the horse to have some frustration as the need for social contact is highly desirable.
By limiting the forage intake, it can prevent weight gain and health issues such as EMS and laminitis. This is important because welfare is compromised when pain and discomfort is caused by disease that could have been prevented by management. A grazing muzzle provides a way to manage forage intake correctly and can limit the chances of health problems.
Natural behaviour should be allowed to be expressed in a domestic setting. A grazing muzzle can prevent some behaviours being exhibited such as being able to have full social contact with another horse. However, a grazing muzzle allows more behaviours to be displayed compared to other management options such as individual stabling all day. Within a stable setting a horse is unable to have contact with another horse, the also are unable to freely roam. Many single housed equines become stressed leading to stereotypies and unwanted behaviours. Whereas a grazing muzzle allows for the horse to have many more options on what they want to do.
Overall, a grazing muzzle has many benefits and limitations. To choose whether a grazing muzzle is appropriate for your horse and yourself, it is important that you look at your horse as an individual. The mental state of the horse is highly important for good welfare and a grazing muzzle may cause frustration and negative mental state as it restricts social contact and feed intake.
On the other hand, a grazing muzzle has many benefits including limiting forage for the obese equine and allowing the horse to freely roam which all promote good welfare. As a horse owner it may be a beneficial tool if you only have turnout and are unable to manage obesity in any other way. Psychologically it allows the horse choice, and it allows the horse to continue to chew which is highly desirable of the horse. Grazing also allowing the horse to trickle feed and therefore line the stomach wall and prevent the risk of ulcers. Overall, the choices we make can impact the horse and we must decide what we think is best for our horse and using ethical frameworks allow us to consider all aspects of welfare implications.
We hope this helps you with deciding what to do and thank you so much Holly for this article
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