Grazing muzzles can allow overweight horses and ponies access to pasture while preventing them from eating too much lush grass.

Photo: Photos.com

If you’ve owned or cared for a variety of horses over time, you’ll know that when spring and summer roll around, there’s a certain equine type that can be tough to manage: the round one.

The Warmblood mare I had in my 20s, Mocha, squeezed into this group (but only if she sucked her tummy in and held her breath), which made managing her on the lush pastures of Central Kentucky challenging. By all accounts Mocha was already sizable before moving west from our home state, Virginia, not only in height and bone but also breadth of barrel. Kentucky only added to the problem, even though she was getting plenty of exercise. It seemed I had an air fern on my hands, and finding a way to keep her slim became my priority … no, my mission. This was tough because our boarding farm didn't have a drylot.

Also about this time some brilliant thinkers had invented a tool now considered indispensable by many horse owners: the hallowed grazing muzzle. I bought Mocha one, which she promptly destroyed. She did the same with the next. After MacGyver-ing the others back together (think elaborate baling twine knots and cable/zip ties), but still finding the muzzles later trampled and covered with mud, I wised up to her tricks and purchased a combo halter/grazing muzzle (also a relatively new invention at the time). Occasionally I’d find it dangling around her neck like a black nylon-and-polymer pendant, but for the most part we had a solution.

Mocha was creative in her use of the muzzle. She used it as a battering ram in the pasture against other horses (still maintaining her near-the-top spot in the pecking order, even without teeth) and occasionally against a fence or gate (all the while sounding like Darth Vader breathing behind that mask). While grazing, she’d work her lips against the muzzle until she had hard callouses, but callouses were preferable to some of the more dangerous alternatives--namely, devastating laminitis. Thankfully, she left Kentucky unscathed and, though a touch round, otherwise healthy.

My current horse, Happy, is a bit of a harder-keeping Thoroughbred, so gone for now is the cycle of muzzle fitting and retrieval (and sometimes rehab!) that I’m already seeing at the barn, even though it’s early spring. It appears horses’ muzzle aversion tactics have grown increasingly complex since the Mocha days. One of my team members has a horse who comes in from the pasture wearing his muzzle like a bit, and a friend from the barn has a Percheron cross who dutifully increases the size of the hole in his muzzle over time, eventually damaging it beyond repair.

Perhaps you, too, are managing an air fern. You wish he could just curb his or her appetite. As your horse pouts from behind his muzzle, all you want to do is hold his face, look him in the eye, and say, “I love you, but this this is for your own good!”

If you haven’t already seen it, in the April issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care, Dr. Janice Holland provides some useful input on how to keep easy keepers trim when the grass greens, setting some monitoring baselines so you know exactly what’s going on with his weight and body condition over time. (I’d never really thought about it before, but hay before pasture can make a horse feel more satiated and possibly reduce an enthusiastic grazer’s consumption.)

We hope Holland’s tips, along with regular exercise, helps you keep your round one healthy. Be sure to send us photos of your easy keepers nibbling from their slow-feeder haynets and proudly wearing their grazing muzzles.

Do you own an “air fern”? How have you managed his or her intake, whether with drylots, grazing muzzle, or other tactics?