How Safe is Grass for Horses?

The following article is written by holistic veterinarian, Dr. Madalyn Ward, DVM, and is re-printed with permission.  Please see Dr. Ward’s website, Holistic Horsekeeping for more articles and information on holistic horse care. 

________________________________________________________________________

horses grazing

Grass is safe for horses. True or false?  Well, it depends. I have learned a lot in the last few months about why grass can cause laminitis in susceptible horses. Some of my previous beliefs have been proven incorrect. Here is a test to see where you are in your knowledge. To find out more, visit http://safergrass.org/.

1. Grass founder can happen after eating too much fresh green grass. TRUE.

Grass founder can happen for two reasons. First, the excess carbohydrates (sugars) in the grass can cause digestive upset, which often leads to laminitis. Second, grasses under stress often produce high levels of a type of sugar called fructans. Horses cannot easily digest fructans, and the sugars end up in the large intestine where bacteria multiply and break them down. The overgrowth of the fructan-digesting bacteria upsets the normal balance of the digestive tract and produces toxins that lead to laminitis.

2. Fructans are high in grass right after a rain and not a problem during dry weather.  FALSE.

Grasses produce fructans after photosynthesis, which is dependent on sunlight. Grasses are actually lower in fructans during cloudy weather.

3. Grass founder or laminitis is only a problem in spring and fall, when grass is lush and growing most rapidly.  FALSE.

Grasses produce fructans when stressed, which can be the result of drought, frost, or rapid growth during intense sunlight (especially after a rain).

4. Laminitis-prone horses are safe in pastures that are not fertilized or maintained. FALSE.

While I prefer horses to be grazed on unfertilized, native grass pastures, grasses in nutrient-poor soil are often under stress and produce high levels of fructans. Since steadily growing grasses tend to deplete their fructan levels (which is a good thing), regular mowing to encourage this kind of growth can help control fructan levels. Regular mowing also helps control weeds.

5. Overweight and insulin resistant horses are the most susceptible to laminitis from grass. TRUE.

Overweight horses develop a mechanical form of laminitis from excess pressure on their laminar attachments (structures within the hoof that support the bones in the hoof). Insulin-resistant horses may or may not be overweight, but are prone to grass founder or laminitis. Signs of insulin resistance include a cresty neck and unevenly distributed fat over the withers and base of the tail.

6. Hay never contains harmful carbohydrates. FALSE.

Hay can contain up to 30% fructans depending on the weather conditions when the hay was cut. Hay cut in the afternoon on a sunny day will have higher fructan levels than hay cut in the morning on a cloudy day. Hay that was rained on between cutting and baling will have the lowest fructan levels because rain washes excess fructans out of the hay. Cool climate grasses such as fescue, bromegrass, ryegrass, orchardgrass, and quackgrass tend to have higher fructan levels, while drought-resistant grasses such as bermuda, switchgrass, bluestem, and Indian grass have lower levels. All pasture grasses have the potential for high fructan levels under the right conditions.

7. The safest time to turn out laminitis-prone horses on pasture is late at night or early in the mornings, when the grass is not in a flowering stage of growth or stressed by drought or frost. TRUE.

As stated above, these are periods when grass would contain lower fructan levels. Grazing muzzles are another good alternative for horses that must be left on pasture. Ideally, having a dry lot where you can keep your horses during critical times is best. If hay causes a problem because of high fructan levels, consider soaking it for 30 minutes to an hour before feeding to wash out some of the offending carbohydrates. Beet pulp is another safe source of fiber for horses who are sensitive to carbohydrates.

 

 

Casie

Hi! My name is Casie Bazay. I'm a mom, a freelance writer, and a certified equine acupressure practitioner.

You may also like...

7 Responses

  1. AnneMarie says:

    Re beetpulp, I have been told that the calcium/fosfor is not good when you give only beetpulp and therefor one has to mix it with bran.
    Can you confirm and give the ratio please, as I am not sure how to mix it?

    • then5925 says:

      Hi Annemarie,

      If you’re feeding very much beet pulp then yes, adding something high in phosphorus to the beet pulp (which is high in calcium) is recommended. As for the ratio, I can’t really say exactly–it would depend on how much beet pulp you’re wanting to feed. Is the horse eating grass or hay as well? Also, does the horse have metabolic issues like Cushing’s or insulin resistance? If so, you won’t want to feed very much rice bran–wheat bran may be a better choice.

      • AnneMarie says:

        I used it for 2 of my horses that are really too thin whereas the other two are just too fat; they all can eat the same: mostly hay at their heart’s content.
        Very little grass due to the dry weather.
        I read somewhere a ratio of 1:4 beet pulp/bran, but these people also were not sure…
        It is wheat bran.

        • then5925 says:

          Hi Annemarie,

          I just found this article on beet pulp from Dr. Getty–http://www.gettyequinenutrition.com/

          She says not to worry about feeding too much calcium with beet pulp because the calcium is not as readily absorbed by the horse. So in that case, I would probably stick with the 4:1 ratio (and I wouldn’t feed more than a cup or 2 of wheat bran anyways). But that is just my opinion!

  2. Patti says:

    Hi Casie,

    I would like your advice on my situation. I’ve had my Arabian mare for 7 months. I put her on a free-choice diet using slow-feeding hay nets. She lives in a stall, but gets a 3-day turnout in a dry lot. She gets 2 cups a day of low-sugar grain which is used for her ulcer herbs (she’s a picky eater and this worked the best). This summer she has not gotten much exercise due to our Arizona heat. She has gained quite a bit of weight. I’m planning on moving her next week to a pasture boarding. This pasture has dry bermuda grass and weeds. It will be irrigated and it will green up. I will have access to a large stall and arena area for her. I’m concerned about her excess weight and possibly being a candidate for laminitis. I’m confused about the safety of pastures as stated by safegrass.org and Joe Camp’s experience with his horses being out in green pastures and never foundering. What do you think would be the best approach for my situation? Sorry for the long post!

    • Casie says:

      Hi Patti–I answered most of this on Facebook under your post, but as for safergrass.org vs. Joe Camp’s experience, I think they both are right! I believe horses can live safely on grass so long as they are not mineral deficient, aren’t experiencing continual stress, and live in a herd (or get plenty of exercise via riding, etc.) If your horse lives alone or maybe with just one other horse, she may not move around as much on the pasture and therefore may overeat and become a candidate for laminitis. I’ve kept my horses on pasture for most all my life and have never had a laminitis episode until this year when my oldest (who is IR and Cushing’s) developed mild laminitis after a pasture change. She is recovering well though. In your situation, if your horse is already overweight, I would either use a grazing muzzle (if she can tolerate it) or keep her dry lotted with free choice hay for most of the daylight hours (when sugars are highest in grass) and then maybe pasture turnout at night. It’s good that you’re thinking ahead though–not everyone does, and that’s when problems can arise. Best of luck with this transition!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *