Is winter really over? I for one, very much doubt it – call me a cynic but this is Scotland.

Whether or not we see another icy blast, remains to be seen but whatever happens it has been a most unusual winter.

This recent spate of mild weather should definitely have come with a horse warning. It is like spring and with that, we now have spring issues in February.

Horse carers need to be aware and try to safeguard against the usual spring issues now and going forwards in to actual spring.

Body condition

As anyone who reads my columns regularly will be aware, winter is the time to get rid of any excess body condition your horse/pony may be carrying. Unfortunately this winter has not provided the conditions to aid this process.

There have been too many mild spells; which means that the grass hasn’t really stopped growing for any significant length of time and forage quality, in the main, is far too good (more specifically high in sugars).

On the plus side, there has been an opportunity to reduce the feeding of forage at grass, which is just as well given the shortage and therefore cost.

Consequently, there will be a lot of horses and ponies going in to spring in far too good a body condition.

It is therefore imperative to check the body condition score of your equines and act now if they are over condition.

Weight loss

In order to shift some weight off your equine friends some or all of the below tactics should be considered:

Restrict grazing

Bearing in mind that I can actually see the grass growing in Aberdeenshire this week, actioning this is more important than ever.

This can be done by reducing the amount of space your pony has to graze in. Utilise electric tape and fence off an area or set up a track for them to graze around. Another method is to utilise a grazing muzzle, which means that they can still be in a larger area and still be with their pals.

Some ponies really should be in a grazing muzzle all year round, unless there is snow on the ground. It isn’t just a spring/summer consideration. Very many people don’t like them but they really are a godsend for some ponies and once they get used to the concept, it really doesn’t bother them.

Limit high nutritional quality forage intake

As mentioned in previous columns the general nutritional quality of hay/haylage 2018 is far too good for ‘fatties’ but will have been a boost for those who normally struggle to keep condition on their horse over winter.

Trying to source lower sugar/energy hay can sometimes be difficult and therefore there are other tactics that you can try.

Firstly, with so much grass about there is no need to supplement with masses of free access hay.

The big bale in the field (unless the field is totally bald) is a disaster for fat equines, under usual conditions. This year, it is an even worse idea!

There are big bale hay nets available, with small holes to limit intake and as an added bonus reduce wastage. Placing out restricted amounts of hay is also a better plan, and if this can be fed via slow feeder haynets, whether hung up (for shod horses) or on the ground, even better.

The main point is to restrict the amount of hay they can get in their mouth at any one time, to mimic trickle feeding rather than gorging!

Soaking hay to reduce sugars is also a good idea but not always practical if the weather does become wintery. If you can do this, then it is worth doing to help shift the pounds.

Increase exercise

This is not always possible but if you can exercise your horse, then try to do so as often as possible. It has been proven to help with lowering insulin resistance and speeding up weight loss.

Feed for work done

It is always terribly tempting, when the weather improves and we start to exercise our horses a little more, to start to increase their concentrate feed, quantity and nutrient density.

However, if your horse is even slightly overweight coming in to spring this year and you are only really doing light work (see my previous columns for definitions of work levels) then there is no need to feed extra as such.

It is important to makes sure that vitamin and mineral needs are met (utilise a balancer or a good general purpose vitamin and mineral supplement) and if muscle is needing built up a source of quality protein (speak to a nutritionist to ascertain the best way to do this for you).

Potential issues


Unfortunately, we are likely to see an increase in laminitis cases this spring due to the fact that our equine friends have not had the ideal weight loss conditions.

It is unfortunate that there has also been an increase in cases over the winter due to the mild weather and good quality forage.

Although not an ideal scenario, it would be pertinent for grazing time to be severely curtailed now and this spring for many equines, with soaked hay being supplemented, as and when necessary.

Track, grazing systems are great for horses and ponies, keeping them moving whilst also restricting their grazing. Please do consider their use or long thin paddocks as a half –way house.

Digestive issues

Throughout this winter I have had queries that are normally reserved for spring time about “runny poos” and colic type scenarios.

If your horse or pony has a sensitivity to spring grass, then no matter their body condition it is probably best to restrict their access to spring and ‘spring like’ grass and continue to feed hay until the ‘flush’ is over with.

Gassy colic is not comfortable for your horse or you!

Behavioural issues

Never ‘fight with the feed bucket’. If spring grass affects your horse’s behaviour, then consider restricting access.

Whilst your horse’s exercise levels may be increasing don’t reach for the ‘competition mix’ unless your horse is in medium to hard work!

If it needs more energy, then get any excess weight off first and set up a good fitness regime. If you are happy with this, then select slow release type feeds (high oil, low starch/cereals) whilst ensuring vit and min requirements are being met. This will make for a happier, calmer horse and a less anxious jockey too.

If in doubt, consult with a qualified nutritionist as to your best options.