It’s springtime and that grass just keeps popping up! Your fat horse has been locked in the ‘jenny craig’ paddock now for weeks and he’s starting to get fed up, he might be missing his mates, walking the fence or just standing around looking a bit depressed. Or perhaps you are in denial and he’s still out in the paddock gorging himself of the lush green grass!
Using a muzzle allows our fatties to lose weight whilst still living a somewhat normal horse existence. However, just the mention of a horse muzzle conjures fear in horse owners, an association with the Hannibal Lecter mask and concerns about how the horse will feel is enough to scare many people off. For some horses, however, those who are facing laminitis and founder if left on the grass, their use can quite literally save lives. And for those who are just battling the health risks of obesity, it can allow safe turnout time whilst restricting grazing.
The other advantage of using a muzzle is that they allow a horse that would otherwise be locked up, to roam freely and get some exercise. And as we know, exercise is very important for the health and wellbeing of our horses, especially the fat ones!
It’s worth noting here that the goal of using a Muzzle on horses is to SLOW consumption, not to stop it completely. It’s extremely important for gastrointestinal health, that your horse has access to small amounts of food at all times. This is why muzzles come with a small hole in the bottom, to allow your horse to snuffle around and manoeuvre small strands of grass through to be bitten off.
There are many different muzzles on the market. We have personally used several and find both the ‘Best Friend’ and the ‘Tough 1 easy breath’ muzzles to be very good. It’s important to choose one that fits well and is adjustable, some points to consider:
Ensure that the headpiece fits snugly. Many people do not adjust them properly and leave the cheek/throat strap too low. This strap needs to be high up under the horse's throat or windpipe and be quite tight. This is especially important if you have a crafty little pony, they can be experts at slipping it off over the ears and once they have slipped it off a few times they will never cease trying. It’s far easier not to let him get it off in the first place! See pics below:
THIS IS A TOUGH ONE, A GOOD MUZZLE BUT THIS ONE IS FITTED INCORRECTLY - NOTE THE CHEEK STRAP IS BELOW THE CHEEKBONE, THE HORSE CAN SLIP THIS OFF EASILY IF HE IS CRAFTY!
Some muzzles come with a breakaway clip or strap so that if the horse gets stuck on a gate or fence and pulls back they are able to get free safely without breaking the muzzle. This is a good option especially if you are unable to check on your horse frequently.
One of the muzzles I bought did not have this breakaway option, so I made my own. I cut one of the straps and replaced a section of it with a piece of baling twine, this enabled me to adjust the thickness and breaking strength of the baling twine according to what I thought was the safest option for my horse.
It’s generally best to introduce the muzzle to your horse in stages. Start with leaving the muzzle on for short periods only, maybe 20 minutes to start and build up from there. This is really dependent on how your horse reacts. Some horses get the hang of eating with the muzzle on very quickly, whereas some will go and stand in a corner and sulk for the first few tries!
It’s important never to let your horse’s tummy get too empty. Like I said earlier, the goal of the muzzle is to SLOW consumption, not stop it completely. Therefore your horse will need to learn to eat grass with the muzzle on and this can take a while. It can be helpful to show your horse what to do by poking grass through the hole and ‘leading’ his nose down to the ground.
Also, check to ensure your horse is drinking with the muzzle on, most don’t hesitate to submerge the muzzle in the water trough but it is always good to check to be sure.
It’s important to understand that a horse, generally speaking, cannot eat hay or very long grass with the muzzle on. The horse will be unable to manoeuvre the muzzle hole to poke the long bits through. In this case, you may need to either mow a section of the paddock or graze it with other horses or livestock to shorten the grass.
The amount that your horse can eat with the muzzle is dependent on muzzle type, size of the hole, length of grass and your horse’s persistence! Some horses adapt very well to eating with it on, for example, I had to make the hole smaller for my horse because she got very good at it! More on this later…
One way I used to tell how much my horse was eating, was to listen to my horse whilst she was grazing both with the muzzle and without it.
Take your horse out into the pasture without the muzzle and listen to him graze, get the feel of what a normal mouthful sounds like, you can hear them tearing at the grass with every bite. Then put the muzzle on and listen again.
I was satisfied that my horses' mouthful consumption was low enough when the tearing noise had reduced by about 80%, and on some tries there was no noise at all, just empty teeth grab. Not very scientific I know but it worked for me!
It’s good to let your horse have a break from the muzzle. Depending on the strictness of your pasture reduction strategy, you may be able to just have the muzzle on during the day, or at night. Other people may choose to do a day on and a day off for example. Alternatively, if the horse is locked up on a track system or in a yard, it can just be used for turnout to allow the horse to have some free time. One client of mine uses the muzzle 3-4 days in a row with one day off. Use your horses’ body condition as a guide.
Depending on which type of muzzle you buy for your horse, you may find that before too long, especially if you have a very persistent horse, that the hole starts to wear through or tear. I found this tended to happen fairly quickly in the cheaper ones.
Once this starts to happen, it’s pretty much the end of the muzzle as it can get big quickly and can’t really be repaired.
To counter this problem I cut a piece of rubber matting and fitted it to the inside of the muzzle. This way every time the horse takes a bite (and if, like my Mare, it’s quite an aggressive forceful bite!), the insert cops most of the force. Then when it’s worn away you can just replace the insert.
I used reinforced rubber flooring designed for float floors. Take care you choose a material that is non-toxic and is not reinforced with metal. I source mine from The Horse Shed Shop, sometimes they have small offcuts available.
I leave a small round plate, with a hole in it, to fit in the bottom of the muzzle. I make sure I leave ‘arms’ and ‘legs’ on the plate at the correct spacing to be cable tied to the bottom of the muzzle. Taking care to tuck the cut ends of the cable ties where they won't rub on the horse or stick out of the muzzle to catch on your horses legs or on another horse.
The other good thing about having a lining is that you can choose the size of the hole, or even make several inserts with different sized holes depending on how much grass restriction you want to do.
The other really important aspect of using a muzzle for horses, especially with horses at risk of Laminitis, is that you must regularly check your horse. Ask yourself this, if your horse gets it’s muzzle off at the beginning of his turnout, what are the consequences of him being on the pasture until you next check on him? This is a decision you have to make depending on the level of risk for that particular horse.
One other thing worth mentioning. I found my muzzle used to rub my horses face quite badly, especially if I left it on longer than 12 hours. You may need to fix some sheepskin to the part of the muzzle that is rubbing. This is what I did with mine and it worked a treat.
So that’s pretty much all I can think of in regards to Muzzle use with horses. They really are a handy tool for diet restriction and you’ll be surprised how quickly your horse gets used to it!
You may find that your horses coat has already started shedding, this is triggered by the longer daylight hours and marks the start of the long winter coat loss! This process will continue over the next few months and it's important to provide adequate nutritional support during this time to encourage a healthy and shiny new summer coat.