Safe Grazing for Horses

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 Grazing Safely: How to Avoid the Hidden Health Risks in Pasture Grass

As we go from winter to spring, it’s time to start thinking about the nutritional needs for our horses, especially changes in the forage available to horses grazing in the pasture. Spring brings an increased risk for several health conditions, like laminitis and insulin dysregulation, in horses that pasture graze. Here are some spring turnout tips to help keep your horses healthy as temperatures start to increase.

Spring Turnout Management

  • It’s important to understand the importance of the nonstructural carbohydrate (NSC) component of grass. NSC is a measurement of sugar and starch levels in forages and grains. Research shows that an overabundance of NSCs in a horse’s diet has the potential to cause problems, including colic or laminitis. So when you are reintroducing green grass to a horse after the winter, take into account the NSC concentrations in pasture grass.


  • NSC levels are at their highest in early spring grasses, and studies in Europe have shown that putting a grazing muzzle on a horse or pony can decrease pasture intake by up to 80 percent. It is a good idea to equip your horse with a grazing muzzle if it is on 24-hour-a-day turnout when transitioning from winter to early spring pasture.


  • Studies have also shown that pasture NSC concentrations are lowest in the evening and peaks at midday, so, if possible, it’s best to turn horses out at night and remove them from pasture by mid-morning.


  • Research also shows that as plants mature, NSC levels decrease as fiber levels increase. This depends on several situations, like pasture management, pasture plant species, weather, and geographic location. It takes plants approximately two to three weeks to go from the leafy stage to the pre-bud stage. Once the plants begin to mature, the lower NSC levels mean you might be able to increase your horse’s turnout time gradually.


  • For all horses prone to laminitis, insulin resistance, or other metabolic issues, restrict turnout to a dry lot and provide adequate hay as a forage source. The ideal hay is cut late and likely to be lower in NSC.

Your Horse’s Specific Nutritional Needs

Carolina Equine Hospital provides nutritional guidance for horse owners, as well as testing and treatment for metabolic issues, and a complete range of equine care. To arrange a veterinary appointment, call us at 336-349-4080 or request an appointment online.