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You may have read my previous article about the challenges of keeping Rock (an over height Connemara) trim or you may have previously tried and failed with a grazing muzzle. Perhaps you’ve never tried one as you’ve heard the disaster stories or perhaps you think this type of article would be better in early spring... for all and any of these reasons, please read on.

Equine obesity is a huge issue in the UK and this increases the risk of laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance (think horse diabetes), arthritis and soft tissue injuries. What’s equally alarming is the percentage of owners/caregivers that don’t realise their equine is overweight.

Why should I use a grazing muzzle?

Grazing muzzles can help in preventing weight gain and managing your horse's weight. They aren’t just for spring and summer when the grass is growing and lush, they can also be just as important in autumn. Warm autumn days with cool nights create the ideal conditions for the grass to start growing again. Another factor to consider is that, when the temperature falls below 5°C overnight, the carbohydrate levels in the grass increase once again, which can be dangerous for your horse if consumed.

The science bit, short and sweet I promise – what’s the issue with carbohydrates? Non-structural carbohydrates (NSCs) are found in pasture grass and split into 3 categories: sugar (glucose, fructose and sucrose), starches and fructans. When sugars are in excess of the plant or grass' energy needs for growing, they are converted and stored as “carbohydrates”. If consumed suddenly or in large quantities these NSCs can cause mayhem with the horse/ponies digestive system and lead to severe health concerns (as well as weight gain), therefore, it’s vital to manage grass intake.

Do grazing muzzles really work?

Grazing muzzles can be a great management tool. They come in a variety of shapes and designs and are ultimately designed to limit – but not prevent – your horse/pony's grass or forage intake. Research has shown that wearing a grazing muzzle can reduce intake by between 30% and 83%. How much horses/ponies are fed should be based on the weight of the animal and we should feed 2.5% to 3% of their body weight per day. We also need to take into consideration what stage of their life they're at (e.g. still growing or elderly) and their activity levels/workload – it's a fine balance. When horses/ponies are turned out to grass they can easily gorge and eat a lot more than their recommended intake level, meaning they put on weight and are at risk of the health conditions mentioned above.

How long should a horse wear a grazing muzzle? 

It’s widely recommended that a grazing muzzle should be worn for 10-12 hours a day, and while they do need periods every day when the muzzle is removed, this might not be practical in your management schedule. Bear in mind, if the grazing muzzle is removed when they are still out on pasture, they are more than likely going to compensate by gorging. They can eat a huge amount in a short space of time, undoing any benefits of having worn the grazing muzzle.

Rock wears his muzzle for approximately 14 hours per day. He is then stabled with a small, controlled amount of hay for the remainder of the time to have a snooze, a break from the muzzle and avoid the worst of the sun (if we ever get any). This works for us – as I’ve slightly increased the size of the grazing hole on the muzzle – so don’t get stressed and avoid a muzzle if you think your horse/pony does need one but will have to have it on longer than 10 hours... it could still be do-able.

The “Pros” of grazing muzzles:

  • Grazing muzzles can prevent weight gain, over eating and gorging, and assist in preventing laminitis, equine metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance.
  • A grazing muzzle enables the horse/pony to be turned out, or turned out for longer periods to satisfy their innate need to graze; it's important for gastrointestinal health, mental health, low-level maintenance fitness, and social interaction.
  • As the grazing muzzle allows them to be “horses” outside, this can also help to prevent stress and boredom and stop them from developing vices that start as a result of being stabled for long periods. Fresh air is also vital for your horse's respiratory health.
  • A grazing muzzle is a great alternative when you don't have access to a stable, forage-free turnout pen or any other way to prevent gorging and weight gain.
  • Your saddle will fit and your horse/pony won’t be obese. Horse obesity can mean that they overheat easily, struggle to keep fit and do the job you want, and in the longer term, can lead to unsoundness.

The “Cons” of grazing muzzles:

These really fall into 3 main categories;

  • They fall off easily
  • Your horse/pony will not tolerate it
  • They rub and cause discomfort

These “cons” can mainly be resolved by some level of experimentation with different muzzles. However, before you buy a grazing muzzle, some consideration and research should be given to the following:

  • You horse's head confirmation
  • The size and weight of the muzzle
  • The material and design of the muzzle
  • The size and shape of the grazing hole – round, rectangular or stripped like a grill 
  • The size of the nostril holes for breathability and ventilation
  • The number of clips/straps which could get caught
  • The type of pasture (e.g. fencing, trees, bushes and gates)

Getting the right grazing muzzle

A properly fitting muzzle, that your horse or pony tolerates, will go a long way to helping it stay on. Size, weight, design, material and correct fit are all vital considerations to help avoid rubbing and chafing. Even the muzzles with sheepskin covers and attachments will still rub if either the fit is wrong or your horse/pony really doesn’t like it, as they will either try to remove it or eat at an angle to try and maximum grass intake. It’s also very important to inspect and clean the muzzle daily as debris can collect inside them and can be ingested or add to the rubbing/discomfort.

The standard hole size on grazing muzzles is really quite small and often designed for wear over short periods out on lush grazing. So if your horse/pony is out for longer periods they many genuinely not be able to get enough grass/forage. It’s possible to increase the eating hole size on most muzzles with a drill attachment, knife or sharp scissors (please take care!) and increasing the size of the hole by only a centimeter could make all the difference to them tolerating it and keeping it on.

Some horses just don’t seem to like grazing muzzles and become grumpy and resentful. Often, this is not just because they can’t eat as much as they want, but due more to the fit, material or design of the muzzle. Traditional types of muzzle can be bulky, heavy, hot and claustrophobic, which can then lead to stressed behavior, trying to remove the muzzle and pasture damage from hole-digging.

Some horses are frustrated by wearing a grazing muzzle as it stops them from being able to mutually groom. Try experimenting with different types of muzzle or increasing the size of the eating hole, until you find one which works for your horse. We tried 4 well-known brands, whose muzzles were all well thought out and designed, before we found 'the one'. However, as they prevent both mutual grooming and their ability to defend themselves with a nip or bite, depending on the horse/pony and the herd structure, they may not ever tolerate a grazing muzzle.

Other considerations

Grazing muzzles do pose some risk to your horse's teeth as they may rub against the muzzle's surface, especially if they push harder against the ground when trying to eat more. Hard rubber or plastic muzzles will tend to wear teeth more than flexible plastics ones. However, even the hard ones, when properly managed, won’t be any worse for their teeth than cribbing or wood chewing, and you should weigh this risk up against the option of the horse/pony being stabled for much longer periods, or risking laminitis and all the other associated health concerns.

You also need to consider the fencing, trees, bushes, etc, within the field your horse/pony will have access to, so that you can minimize the risk of them getting caught on something.

There are some alternatives to using a grazing muzzle for weight management, such as keeping them in during the day and turning out at night when the sugar sources in the grass are generally depleted, soaking hay to leach out nutrients, feeding straw rather than hay, turning out in a dirt paddock, etc. Alongside any of these options, increasing their work load can also help with weight management.

If these alternative options aren’t practical, take the time to research and investigate a good muzzle to help manage your horse/ponies weight.

A grazing muzzle design with a difference...

'The one' for us is the ThinLine Flexible Slow Feed Grazing Muzzle. While it's far from the cheapest available, its innovative design – flexible, well ventilated, and constructed in a soft, lightweight material which offers UV protection and extra comfort – means Rock will happily wear it for 14 hours a day with no rubbing! It looks wildly different to the more traditional bucket or cage-like muzzles, and trying it was a complete leap of faith as I really couldn’t find many reviews, but it’s genuinely prefect for our requirements and I can leave Rock out longer, “being a horse”, with no concerns.

Please don’t be put off considering a grazing muzzle because you think they are cruel (you’re doing the best thing for them because you care), or that they are only for 12hh ponies, or that other horse owners might disapprove. Managing your horse/pony's weight is vital and a grazing muzzle can be a really effective tool in helping with this.

To summarise, the 3 main points to consider when thinking about using a grazing muzzle are;

  • Your horse/pony needs to lose weight
  • The muzzle must be carefully selected and fitted correctly
  • Your horse/pony must be allowed time to gradually adapt to wearing it and be given time during each day when they don't have to wear it

You can keep up to date with all Caroline and Rock's adventures by following them on Instagram @grey_connieadventures

Caroline Ramsay
Horsemart Content Contributor
Published on 24-08-2020
Caroline is a horse owner and rider based in bonnie Scotland where she juggles how to keep a native fit while working full time in IT and renovating a never-ending project house with her other half and 2 cats. Caroline holds an Equine Nutrition Award by The University of Edinburgh which covered feed composition and how this affects digestibility, nutrient sources, dietary management, general nutrient requirements of horses and ponies, body condition score and clinical nutrition. Caroline has experience with older horses as her first pony lived to the grand old age of 28, competing until he was 26, and is also sadly very familiar with broken horses as unfortunately, his replacement was extremely accident prone. Caroline set up her Instagram account to document the honest highs and lows of starting a young reluctant horse and chart their journey together.