Now that the clocks have changed and autumn has well and truly arrived it’s a relief to say goodbye to the menace of pestering flies, parched grazing and rock hard ground for another year. Unfortunately, the sharp, frosty weather brings its own share of short-term, seasonal headaches for horse owners.
You should make it a regular part of your management routine to check pastures and hedging for poisonous plants. The leaves of certain trees like wild cherry, yew and red maple are particularly dangerous to horses.
Another problem in the autumn is poisoning due the ingestion of large quantities of fallen acorns which contain tannic and gallic acids. These chemicals can cause severe damage to the kidneys and gastrointestinal system of the horse. Symptoms of acorn poisoning include colic; constipation, blood in the urine, dehydration and accumulation of fluid in the legs. There is no antidote for acorn poisoning and prevention is obviously the best strategy. If you have oak trees on your grazing fields, fence them off temporarily until the acorns have all fallen then remove them before removing the fencing.
Some horses actually develop a taste for acorns and actively seek them out. Oak foliage is also toxic although horses will generally only eat it if they are really hungry and there’s no alternative available. You may need to put out some hay or haylage to keep your horse busy and thus dissuade him from nibbling on hedging and overhanging trees.
If your horse is out overnight in the winter, be aware that frozen grass can cause injury. Grass which is hard frozen is very prickly and can cause nasty scratches to pasterns, muzzles and other vulnerable areas where the skin is not protected by a thick winter coat. Check your horse every morning to make sure that he is injury free.
The majority of flies will disappear when the weather turns cooler, but bright sunny days following frosty nights will often see a surprising emergence of midges and gnats which can be a nuisance to horses. It’s often a good idea to leave fly masks or fringes on during the day time during this kind of weather together with a good dose of fly repellant, especially if your horse is prone to sweet itch.
Although laminitis is usually known as a disease of spring time when the grass begins to grow and the sugar content is high, there is also a danger of susceptible animals being struck down if turned out on frosty grass.
Grass and clover contains high levels of soluble sugars and carbohydrates during the growth phase. A sharp frost can abruptly cause growth to stop and the stressed plants begin to store their sugars in the stem base ready to refuel growth when conditions become more favourable. This makes stems and leaves more easily digestible and much sweeter. Laminitic horses are then vulnerable to this sudden and unexpected concentrated sugar rush which is made worse by the fact that the grass is sweeter and horses are more inclined to gorge on it.
Keep susceptible horses off frosted grass until the greening up has ceased.
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