Management strategies for using grazing muzzles

Horse Health: Grass consumption can be reduced by 30 to 80 per cent 
depending on the horse or pony wearing one

The grazing muzzle is a simple, effective, and sensible tool caretakers can use to manage the grass intake of their horses. The grazing muzzle is a basket-like contraption — a piece of headgear a horse wears with the intention of slowing down and reducing grass intake on pasture. The horse wearing the muzzle can breathe and drink normally yet the muzzle physically reduces bite size and limits grass intake.

Any horse that does not need as much grass as is available to them will benefit from a grazing muzzle. Overconsumption of sugar or starch-laden rich grasses predisposes horses to obesity. As the horse’s body weight exceeds their ideal, the horse not only becomes increasingly intolerant of exercise, it also becomes far more susceptible to metabolic derangements such as insulin resistance and debilitating diseases such as laminitis, also known as founder. The muzzle can be an especially important tool in safeguarding this susceptible group of horses from illness.

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Grazing muzzles bring specific advantages to the horse over other means of weight management. They allow the horse nutritional value of grasses without the risks that accompany consuming too much, as well as allow the horse movement and companionship with pasture mates. Sensible movement is perhaps the largest benefit to weight management one can offer the horse. In addition many owners prefer to muzzle their horses over implementing physical changes to their facilities.

When to place a grazing muzzle on the horse depends upon the horse’s own sensitivity and body condition. It will also depend upon the condition of the pasture itself.

Since pasture grazing represents an unregulated source of calories that cannot be easily quantified it will be important to develop the skills to body condition score your horse, and make decisions regarding muzzling of the horse accordingly.

Being able to “read” the pasture is also valuable when deciding when to place the muzzle on the horse. Grazing muzzles can be worn every day or only during those days when the pasture grass is more abundant and contains a higher concentration of non-structural carbohydrates i.e. sugars and starches.

In addition, turnout on pasture may best be avoided altogether when the pasture grasses are growing rapidly in spring when the weather turns warmer, or during the summer months after heavy rainfall. Grasses also accumulate sugars when they are stressed by drought or overgrazing.

Research as to the exact amount of reduction that occurs with muzzling is inconclusive. Results range from 30 to 80 per cent.

If you have ever experienced introducing a horse or pony to a grazing muzzle, one can quickly see how results vary. Each one experiences their own unique learning curve as they become accustomed to their new headgear.

The food-motivated pony and a certain percentage of horses easily delight in the one or two blades of grass that present themselves through the muzzle. For other horses carrot treats and grass hand-fed through the holes in the muzzle are necessary for the horse to get the idea they can still eat while wearing a muzzle.

A well-fitting muzzle will have an inch of clearance between the bottom of the muzzle and the horse’s nose, cannot be easily pulled forward or backward off of the nose, and the halter is neither too tight nor too loose around the poll or jaw. It may be necessary to place fleece or padding around the muzzle edges to prevent rub marks or pressure sores from developing against the skin.

Even with a well-fitting muzzle, horses and ponies may spend hours to days attempting to unmuzzle themselves. Securing the muzzle by braiding the crownband into the horse’s mane usually thwarts such attempts.

Often the horse’s compliance to wearing the muzzle improves when they are introduced to the muzzle for shorter periods of time, gradually building up the time the muzzle is left on. At least 12 muzzle-free hours a day is advisable. What happens during the other 12 hours will depend on the pasture conditions. Some horses, when left to eat freely on rich pastures following a period of muzzling, can and often do compensate for the restriction earlier in the day. If so, dry-lotting with a small amount of grass hay may be the best available option for the other 12 hours of the day.

In the event the horse succeeds in removing the muzzle at pasture, tagging the muzzle with fluorescent tape can make for an easier recovery.

It remains important to maintain a breakaway feature for the horse’s safety. Horses with grazing muzzles placed on them require mindful supervision. The horse must be able to drink water comfortably while wearing the grazing muzzle. Be aware of social interplay and hierarchy amongst horses as well, as herd dynamics may change.

Although the horse or pony may not appear to enjoy being muzzled, it may be what is necessary under the present circumstances to manage their health. Without restriction, the illnesses that will ensue from overconsumption will require a different level of management, as obesity and overconsumption of rich grasses inevitably create their own set of health disturbances.

About the author


Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.



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