by Sally Colby
If you run your hand over a horse at this time of year, you’ll probably end up with a handful of hair. Although it seems as if shedding starts when temperatures rise, shedding is initiated by longer daylight.
Horses that have spent most of the winter outside and without a blanket probably still have a winter coat, but now is a good time to evaluate the horse’s body condition and help him transition smoothly from winter to spring. Horses that have been blanketed throughout the winter will have to adjust to losing that extra layer, and owners will spend a few weeks putting blankets on for cold weather and removing them when it’s warm until temperatures remain stable.
It’s important to check the horse’s body condition throughout the winter and in early spring. Equine nutritionist Dr. Claire Thunes says the ideal body condition score for a horse is between 4 and 6. Horses working through winter might be leaner and have a lower score yet be perfectly healthy, and a broodmare might have a higher score since she’s being fed for two.
Thunes describes a body condition score of 5 as a horse having a neck that blends smoothly into the body, with fat buildup over the spinous processes at the withers, and the withers are not overly prominent. “Keep in mind the breed of horse,” she said. “If you have a shark-fin Thoroughbred, you may never get weight built up over the spinous processes of the withers. The big thing everyone focuses on is ribs, but I caution people to not be too obsessed with ribs — you have to look at the whole horse.”
Rather than assigning a score by looking at the entire horse, Thunes prefers to evaluate the body condition on several areas of the animal and come up with an average. “You can have a horse that you can see ribs, but it has crest fat and fat deposits around the tailhead,” she said. “That might be an indicator that the horse has something metabolic going on. The ribs are a nice visual in that you can stand back and say, can I see the horse’s ribs? If it’s yes, then the rib section scores less than a 5. If I can’t see the ribs easily, I know they’re a 5 or higher.” Thunes added that a horse that scores a 5 should have a level back, while a back that peaks like a mountain range is less than a 5.
Thunes encourages horse owners to use a hands-on approach for a more realistic assessment of body condition. Many horse owners don’t ride or groom as often in winter, and if the horse grows a full coat, they appear to be deceptively fluffy and round. Miniature horses and ponies tend to grow exceptionally heavy winter coats, so it’s important to evaluate them carefully for body condition.
Although the greening of pastures in spring is a welcome sight, horse owners should be cautious when horses start to graze new grass. Horses that remain on the same pasture through winter will start to consume grass as soon as it starts to grow, which is a natural way to introduce a new feed source. But spring grazing is a potential problem for all horses, and can be deadly for horses with metabolic problems.
Managing early spring turnout means understanding the role of nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC), a measure of starch and sugars in grasses. The NSC levels in spring grasses can cause metabolic problems that lead to laminitis as well as gut issues such as colic.
High levels of NSCs accumulate in rapidly growing spring grasses. Although the plant uses quite a bit of the starch and sugars for its own growth, there are still significant levels available to grazing animals. Horses that have spent the winter eating hay are eager to eat sweet, early grass, and will turn down the best hay in favor of that young grass. Young grass also has low fiber levels, making it even more appealing to horses.
Limiting the consumption of early spring grass can be challenging, but it’s important for the horse’s long-term health. Horses that have had limited turnout during winter, and even those that have been pastured all winter, should be slowly introduced to grass. The levels of NSC in the plant are lowest in early morning, so that’s the best time for short turnout — following hay feeding and for just an hour to start. Horses that are overweight, those with a history of laminitic episodes and horses on lush spring pasture should wear a grazing muzzle to limit the intake of spring grass. Once nighttime temperatures average above 40 degrees, the NSC levels in the average pasture stand tend to even out and there’s less danger in consuming grass.
Another challenge in early spring is rain rot, also known as rain scald, dew poisoning or mud fever. Although it’s often treated as a fungus, rain rot is caused by the bacteria Dermatophilus congolensis. This bacteria thrives in high moisture conditions and can also cause heel dermatitis, or scratches.
Rain rot most often appears along the horse’s topline, face or lower legs, but it can affect any part of the body. Most horses harbor the bacteria year-round and break out in patches of rain rot when weather conditions are suitable for proliferation. The bacteria enter the top layer of skin, causing an inflammatory reaction and subsequent pus production, and eventually scabs. Trimming excess hair on the fetlocks to keep the lower legs free of mud, ensuring a dry turn-out area and providing shelter during wet weather can help limit the chances of a horse exhibiting signs of rain rot.
The spread of rain rot from one horse to another can be limited by using dedicated grooming tools, clippers, blankets and other equipment. All tools and equipment should be kept clean to avoid contaminating other parts of the horse’s body. One of the best treatments for rain rot is the use of antimicrobial shampoo followed by complete drying, although this is impractical for some horse owners. Many horse owners successfully treat mild cases by simply removing the scabs (a process that is painful to the horse) followed by a spray application of Listerine or tea tree oil. There are many commercial products available to treat rain rot, and seasoned horse owners are usually happy to share their experience with what works best for them.
Many horse owners routinely deworm in spring, but due to parasites’ increasing resistance to deworming products, it’s best to deworm based on fecal egg count. Consult your veterinarian for the best deworming practices for your situation and region.