Muzzle up: Everything you need to know about grazing muzzles
Nothing heralds the onset of spring for horse owners more than the retiring of winter rugs, the moulting of woolly coats and the sight of green fields. However, while some horses can graze with wild abandon, others cannot. Sugar-filled grasses cause problems for many horses.
Different management strategies are available to owners to restrict the intake of grass, not only in the spring but at any time of the year. One of the most widespread methods is the use of a grazing muzzle.
Research shows that using grazing muzzles on ponies that were stabled but turned out on grass for three hours resulted in an 83% decrease in grass intake. Other studies have found decreases of just under 80%.
A muzzle allows a horse all the benefits associated with turnout, from the exercise to the fresh air, without the risks of consuming too much nutrient-rich grass thus limiting the potential for undesirable weight gain.
How does a muzzle work?
It covers the entire muzzle of the horse and allows only limited intake through one or more holes. When a horse wears one of these basket-like contraptions, he can breathe and drink normally but can only consume the blades of grass that poke through the muzzle. With some muzzles, grazing can be limited further by covering the bottom hole with a thick cardboard disc.
When should a muzzle be used?
While artist impressions of Thelwell’s pleasantly plump ponies make most horse lovers smile, actually owning a horse with this body type is serious cause for concern. Equine obesity can lead to a variety of sometimes life-threatening ailments, the most well-known of which is laminitis or “lammy” as it’s affectionately known.
The challenge facing these horses’ owners is an effective method by which to restrict the amount of grass or, hay for that matter, these animals consume. Many owners turn to grazing muzzles to reduce horses’ intake.
Typically, grazing muzzles appear in early Spring when the new shoots of grass start finally to appear. Experience has shown though that grazing muzzles are advisable for some horses well beyond spring. Owners used to think that only new grass was the problem, so they'd put muzzles on when the new grass came through, then take them off when it got dry enough for the growth to slow. But as more has been learnt, they’ve realised that it's not that easy to predict when the grass can be risky. So, the guiding principle now is, if you’re thinking about muzzling, to go ahead and do it. And when you think the grass has died off enough to take it off, wait another week to be sure!
How is it supposed to fit?
Let’s face it: few horses enjoy wearing grazing muzzles and most owners find them exasperating, at least in the beginning of the season. One reason horse owners become frustrated is the difficulty in fitting grazing muzzles comfortably on their horse.
Fitting it correctly is very important. How your muzzle needs to be fitted will ultimately depend on the brand that you choose. So be sure to follow the fit instructions.
A muzzle must be tight enough to stay on, but not so tight that it rubs. Follow these instructions below for a good fit:
* Measure the length of the grazing muzzle against the side of the horse’s head
* There should be a one inch gap between the horse’s mouth and the base of the muzzle to allow for chewing. Test the fit by placing a handful of grass in the muzzle to see if your horse can chew it
* You should be able to fit two fingers underneath the noseband of the grazing muzzle
* The horse must be able to open its mouth comfortably without any restriction
* Ensure that all straps are not rubbing or creating pressure points.
Pay particular attention to areas that might become rubbed by a muzzle, for example the ears, points of the cheek bones and the bridge of the nose. The weight of the muzzle on the bridge of the nose is the most common area that pressure sores can sometimes develop. Go for a fleece covered noseband to avoid this happening.
Also, be sure that the muzzle is not constantly touching the horse’s mouth.
Watch your horse to see how well he can drink water with the muzzle on. It won’t interfere physically with how he drinks but some horses drink less when they’re wearing muzzles. So, you’ll need to take this into consideration throughout the time he’s wearing it.
Making sure that the muzzle fits correctly, will help prevent your horse removing it. However having said that be aware that an enterprising horse may even succeed getting off a well-fitted muzzle!
What’s the best way to introduce it?
Introduce the muzzle slowly by introducing it for short periods in the stable and rewarding your horse with a treat through the hole in the muzzle each time you put it on and take it off. As you progress outside with your horse wearing the muzzle, feed grass through the hole so your horse gets the idea that he can still eat. Initially leave the muzzle on for short periods gradually building up the time your horse grazes with the muzzle on.
Be aware that the height of the grass is a vital component of grazing muzzle success. Grass that’s too short won’t protrude through the muzzle far enough for the horse to eat, and this can really annoy and frustrate some horses. Overly long grass is also hard to eat because it bends over and doesn’t protrude through the holes in the muzzle very easily. Consider how long your pasture grass is before turning a muzzled horse out on it.
Before turning your horse out with the muzzle on, be sure to check the field carefully for areas where a muzzle might get caught. Fence off any unsafe areas.
How long you leave the muzzle on varies by situation, but it shouldn’t be left on for longer than 10 to 12 hours.
When you take the muzzle off, not only check for spots where it may have rubbed the face but it’s not unusual for debris to get lodged in the muzzle. This should be cleared as soon as possible.
Do bear in mind that once the muzzle is removed, your horse might indulge himself and, what's more, horses can eat vast amounts of grass in a relatively short period of time. Therefore, removing the muzzle while still on grass might undo all the hard work of restricting access if your horse essentially binges on its removal.
Be sure to monitor your horse’s behaviour to see if there are any uncharacteristic changes as a result of wearing the muzzle. Also keep track of his body weight and condition.
Is there anything else I need to be aware of?
You will need to be patient and have a positive attitude when you introduce it. If you’re wary or feel guilty, you can guarantee that your horse will sense this and be wary of the muzzle.
As difficult as it might be, try to ignore the uninformed people who “tsk-tsk” over the “cruelty” of a muzzle. You know the truth—a horse that’s free to exercise and socialize won’t care that he’s getting less grass than he’d like. And what’s more he couldn’t care less what it looks like!
Allow time for your horse to completely adjust to the muzzle before deciding whether it will work for him. Some horses figure it out and take to it almost instantaneously; others require a bit longer. Most do make the adjustment with time. How your horse reacts to it will largely depend on his personality and temperament. And bear in mind that you may need to experiment with different types of muzzles to see which works best for your horse.
Remember that when your horse has got his muzzle on, he’ll be unable to yawn, groom himself or mutually groom his friends. So, you’ll need to allocate time every day for him to do this.
How much does one cost?
A grazing muzzle is an investment in your horse's long-term health and well-being. Wearing a grazing muzzle allows your horse, especially those prone to overgrazing, more turnout time, more social interaction with their pals and keeps their digestive systems working properly. So buy the best that you can afford. Muzzles vary in price. For those on a budget, Shires Grazing Muzzle, on the left below, at £18 is available. Middle of the price range is the JHL Comfort Grazing Muzzle up to the top of the range from Shires is the Shires GreenGuard Muzzle on the right below.
A grazing muzzle can be a very powerful tool to manage a horse that tends to be overweight on grass. Owners should be mindful in the way the muzzle is introduced and should not rely on it as a sole-source of diet restriction.
Take a look at the great collection of Grazing Muzzles that we've put together.
And remember, you get free UK delivery on ALL orders at EQUUS. No minimum spend!