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Springtime horsekeeping

Ah, spring....melting snow, longer days, new greenery emerging from the ground, trees and flowers budding, birds singing, baby animals, and MUD! For us equestrians, springtime comes with its own unique set of horsekeeping challenges. Below is a list of what lies ahead for horse owners in the months leading up to summer and how to mitigate the problems springtime can potentially entail.

Mud: No matter what part of the country you're in, spring usually means mud. As irritating as the sticky stuff can be for your average citizen, it's far more of a hurdle for the horseman (and horsewoman). In poorly maintained public boarding stables, muddy driveways can present a serious obstacle to people without four-wheel drive trying to visit their horses, but owners are not the only ones affected. Horses can develop a number of ailments associated with unsanitary or soggy conditions, such as thrush or scratches. Thrush is a bacterial and/or fungal infection in the soft tissue of the hoof--specifically the frog and clefts of the frog--that causes a distinct, foul odor and black, gooey discharge from the infected areas. Scratches is the common term applied to dermatitis of the pasterns. Both of these pathologies are best prevented by providing dry, sanitary footing for your horse. Additionally, regular grooming of the legs, picking out of the feet, and consistent hoof maintenance are good defenses against both thrush and scratches. Not only will regular cleaning prevent the problem-causing pathogens from remaining in contact with your horse's legs and feet, practicing good grooming habits will also allow you to find any developing health issues and correct them before they progress.

Even if his pen or turn-out is an impossible, sloppy mess, make sure to pick the manure as well as you can, and provide him with at least a small section of dry ground to stand on. I find it easiest to maintain pens and stalls if I remove urine-soaked bedding and feces every day, come hell or high water. It's not that it necessarily hurts your horse to skip a day of cleaning once in awhile--it's just that I find it to be quite labor intensive to let even one day's worth of manure build up between cleanings. Many people comment that to clean my stalls every day I must be quite the dedicated and hard worker; however, I would argue that the opposite is true and that my main motive for daily cleaning is that I'm lazy and it's far easier to do it that way!

Many people let wet conditions become an excuse to not clean their pens, saying that they're waiting for the ground to dry out before they can even begin to think about cleaning! But neglecting to remove the manure, hay and other organic matter will mean the soil will have a harder time drying out and the horse will spend longer than necessary on wet, unsanitary footing.

When cleaning my pens in the springtime and other wet times of the year, I pay special attention to drainage. I will always rake from the edges of the pen under the fences towards the middle. This causes the area that receives the highest volume of traffic to become higher than the surrounding ground, meaning in wet conditions it will drain and dry quickly. If left to their own devices, almost all horse pens will begin to show a hollow in the middle with a significant accumulation of soil around the outer edges under the fence, effectively creating a sort of bowl that will only be counterproductive for drainage as it will simply trap liquids within the pen. Fixing a pen that's been neglected for months is a huge undertaking, but maintaining one whose ground is sloped correctly, allowing for effective drainage, requires little more than about 30 additional seconds of raking during regular cleaning. Providing big rubber mats in some high-traffic areas is advisable, and may reduce the amount of time and bedding required to make a comfortably dry spot for your horse to stand or lie down. Also, mats provide the added benefit of allowing your horse to eat safely off the ground and will absorb more concussion than most hard-packed dirt in the dry weather.

Horse displaying the "saw-horse" stance typical of founder

Green grass: Spring wouldn't be spring without the lush green stuff, but keep an eye on your horse, especially if he's overweight or otherwise in one of the high-risk groups for laminitis. Laminitis, the inflammation and deterioration of the sensitive laminae that attach the coffin bone to the hoof wall, can occur as a result of some kind of systemic inflammatory response to such things as illness, excessive sugar fermentation in the hindgut, exposure to toxins (including some kinds of hardwood such as black walnut in shavings or bedding), or a precursor to infection (in a mare with a retained placenta, for example). Sometimes, there can be mechanical causes such as concussion or excessive weight-bearing due to an injury in the opposite leg. But the most common culprit behind a bout of laminitis is undoubtedly sugar intake, e.g. too much lush green grass.

Care should be taken to limit your horse's access to growing pastures in the springtime, particularly in the morning when the sugar is at its peak, and be vigilant for any indications of laminitis such as reluctance to walk or bear weight, or the characteristic "saw-horse" stance adopted by laminitic horses in an attempt to lessen the burden on sore feet. Also be on the lookout for the appearance of pre-laminitis risk-factors, such as fatty, "cresty" necks and fat deposits around the horse's tail head. Any overweight individual or "easy keeper" is in a higher risk group than his fit peers, and if a horse's BCS (body condition score) is over 6 (on a scale of 0-10), his caloric intake--especially calories from concentrates, grains or other high-starch sources--should be reduced to protect him not just from laminitis but other obesity-related illnesses as well. Horses who are not accustomed to consuming fresh grass might have higher risk if left to their own devices in the springtime, so be sure that your stall-kept animal has turn-out (of course), but keep in mind that it may be wise to limit his access to a turn-out with grass in it until later in the summer when the grasses have started to cure. Certain diseases have also been linked to higher risk of laminitis, such as PPID (also known as Cushing's disease), insulin resistance, and lyme disease.

Any episode of laminitis is to be considered a medical emergency, not only because the horse will be experiencing sever pain but also because if left untreated the sensitive laminae can detach altogether from the hoof wall, allowing the deep digital flexor tendon to pull the coffin bone out of place, resulting in "founder," or the irreparable damage to the anatomy of the hoof. The coffin bone can rotate to such a degree that it can eventually break through the sole of the horse's foot (sinking founder), an event that in most cases precipitates the humane destruction of the animal as the only means to eliminate his suffering. With diligent care by dedicated and experienced equine health-care providers, even a serious case of founder can sometimes be handled without euthanasia, and while the horse may never return to his previous level of work, he may be "pasture sound," or comfortable enough to be ridden lightly. This is, of course provided that the case was detected early enough to prevent the coffin bone from sinking through the bottom of the horse's sole.

Vaccines: The kind of vaccines a horse needs and how much you can expect to spend will depend on a few factors, such as where you and your horse live, where he and/or his barn buddies travel to, the number of horses he comes into contact with during the high-risk summer months, his age and overall health, as well as any specific risks that may present themselves in any given year. In my case, both of my mares received a 6-way (which protects against Eastern and Western sleeping sickness, influenza, tetanus, West Nile, and equine herpes viruses one and four). Sometimes, a vet may recommend others depending on a horse's individual risk factors, but these are the base vaccines recommended for pretty much all horses currently in the Western United States.

In the fall, my mares will receive their rabies booster, as well. The reason I administer the rabies vaccine in the fall is that as long as they get it annually it doesn't matter when in the year it is given. Since the 6-way must be given in the spring to protect the horses over the summer from mosquito-borne illnesses or risks associated with higher use and travel, I prefer to wait on the rabies to avoid overloading their system any more than necessary.

Vaccines are a considerable cost to the low-income horseperson such as myself, so if you aren't sure how much you need to figure into your budget for this very important investment, call your vet and find out. To serve as an example, my last vet bill came to just over $330 for a 6-way vaccine for my two horses, a blood draw for their Coggins test, and health papers. To reduce this amount, you can order the vaccines online and administer them yourself to save some money (as long as you know how to do it safely). Rabies is the only vaccine that needs to be administered by your vet.

Also, don't forget to get all of your travel and health papers in order if you plan on taking trips with your equine buddy. If you are trailering pretty much anywhere, even just to the next town over, you'll need a state brand inspection (which you can obtain by searching for your county's licensed brand inspector online), and if you plan on crossing state lines you'll also need proof of a negative Coggin's test (to be done by your vet and good for one year). Some places you may travel to will also require that you provide health papers issued by a veterinarian within a certain number of days of your arrival, declaring that at the time of travel the horse did not appear to be carrying any communicable diseases and that he has had all of his required shots that year. In general, health papers are good for two months before needing to be redone; however some places have more strict regulations regarding this so be sure to check with the organizers of events and look into state laws regarding livestock transportation. These are all things to take care of before the week of your trip as they can take time to complete.

Parasites: Springtime means deworming time for most horse owners (or rather, for their horses). Deworming is far too complex of an issue to delve into fully here, so I will just say that your vet will be your best resource when planning a program for your horse. In this part of the country (Colorado) we are quite lucky to not have to worry too much about parasite resistance to dewormers, so most of us can get away with deworming a couple of times per year as long as our horses don't show any symptoms of parasite infection and they are kept in sanitary conditions. I tend to deworm my horses about twice yearly: once as the ground thaws out and again as it freezes. I will sometimes include one more deworming on the calendar if I notice them rubbing their tail raw, which can be an indication of worms (although not always). Overcrowding and under-cleaning of horse pens is a good way to ensure that horses will have worms, so if these are the conditions your horse lives in, consider finding him a new arrangement. A fecal egg-count is a good thing to conduct (for horses in warmer climates, especially) before constructing a deworming program so that you can see what kind of parasites your horse may have and then find a medication to target his particular worm-load. Always read the label of dewormers and don't just grab the cheapest or closest one and assume they are all the same. Some are better to use in the spring and some are better to use in the fall. Again, your vet can answer any questions you may have regarding what to use and when.

Flies: I suppose flies and parasites are quite similar, but they both deserve a mention when talking about your horse's springtime concerns. Flies shouldn't be too much of a problem until summer, but you don't want to wait for them to become a problem before thinking about them. If you plan on helping your horse with a feed-through fly repellant (usually containing garlic and other ingredients that make mammals less appealing to flies), you should start introducing the new diet now so that his system is already used to and utilizing the supplement by the time he really needs it. I have had limited luck with these dietary supplements, although they can't hurt and often will include other ingredients that are good for your horse in general. Now may be the time to stock up on fly masks, sheets and other protective gear, fly spray, and/or fly predators. A fly predator is a non-stinging wasp who lays its eggs in fly larvae to stop flies before they can even be born (think of it as a forced fly-abortion, if you will). With global climate change, summer and its charming winged messengers can be expected earlier and earlier with every passing year, so early preparation is becoming more important.

Farriery: If your horse's feet have been neglected during the winter months, and even if they haven't, spring is time to address your hoof-care routine and make any needed changes in your schedule with your farrier. Horses' feet tend to grow faster in the summer since their heart rate directly affects their hoof growth and most of us ride more when the days are longer and warmer. The schedule that worked well for your horse as he was cooped up for the winter may be too infrequent for the active summer that lies ahead. My schedule will go from every six weeks to every four about this time of year, and I'm sure to let my farrier know this ahead of time so that he can put me down before his calendar fills up. In the past, when I was more actively competing in endurance rides (meaning at least two rides per month), my mare's hooves needed a new set of shoes every two weeks. Not only would her feet grow fast enough that she was already grown over her shoes in this amount of time, but we were also covering enough distance that they would be worn paper-thin at the end of two weeks. This is an extreme example of the changes that might be necessary in a hoof-care schedule, and chances are any changes you may need will be moderate ones.

To decide if any changes will be necessary in your unique situation, think about the kind of riding you plan on doing, where you plan on doing it, for how many miles and how often, and also write down any important dates for your horse such as events or competitions; then call your farrier to get some suggestions on footwear for your horse and set up at least a tentative schedule for his visits. If you are riding mostly in an arena only a couple of times per week and your horse has healthy feet with a strong sole and hoof walls, then chances are you won't need to do anything but maintain what God gave him with a farrier visit for a trim once every four to six weeks. If, however, you are asking much more of your horse than he would be doing of his own free will (e.g. jumping, riding long distances, covering rocky terrain, carrying a lot of weight, etc.) then you would be wise to consider shoes or some kind of shoe alternative (such as Easyboots). The decision of to shoe or not to shoe is a very personal and subjective one in most cases, so be sure to have a conversation with your horse's whole "team" (i.e. farrier, vet, trainer, etc.) before making up your mind, and be willing to revisit the issue and modify your original plan if what you're doing is not working.

Training or conditioning: A horse who's had the winter off will need sympathetic and kind handling earlier in the spring to ease him back into working shape without causing him to become resentful, grouchy, or worse, injured. Even if they have not been on a complete sabbatical, most of our horses have had a greatly reduced workload over the winter months and would benefit from our care and consideration when bringing them back into working condition. We must understand that our horses don't know and quite frankly don't care about our human-centered goals, so you can't think that he's going to be as excited as you to get back into the swing of things preparing for your first show of the year. Therefore, your best bet to keep him interested is to make a game of the process of training and conditioning. Think about going to "play" with instead of "work" with your horse! Horses are naturally playful creatures, so this simple change in mindset suits them quite well.

Make his daily routine familiar enough to not stress him out, but varied enough to keep his interest. Get creative and put yourself in your horse's shoes (figuratively speaking). Would you rather run on a treadmill while staring at a boring wall with a trainer bearing down on you, cracking a whip and yelling angrily, or would you rather go for a fun jog with a friend down a scenic trail, laughing and enjoying the nature around you? Tailor your routine to your horse's current fitness and training level as well as what he likes, remembering that each horse is an individual with their own preferences. Even something as simple as adding ground poles to the arena routine can really spice up your riding space and present a physical challenge for an unfit horse. I like to include one of those oversized exercise balls into my training program. It at least makes the arena more interesting by breaking up the space and giving the horse something to think about, and some horses may have a propensity to play with it, making it a great training tool.

The most important thing for getting anyone into shape (horse or human) is consistency. You can't come ride for 20 minutes every other Saturday then ignore your horse during the week and wonder why he's not winning blue ribbons or taking you out for a trail ride without resisting. A horse's natural sense of fairness will tell him instantly that this treatment isn't fair, and a horse dealt an unjust hand will respond with resentment towards the humans who handle him.

Another consideration for your summer training and conditioning routine is your horse's diet. As his workload increases, so will his dietary needs. Don't introduce changes to his feed abruptly as this can result in colic or other digestive distress, and when in doubt, talk to your vet or another trusted and qualified equine professional about how to tailor your horse's diet to his lifestyle.

I'm sure that this list of springtime horsekeeping chores is not exhaustive, but it is a good start so that you can start checking things off your list as summer approaches. If you have any questions, contact me directly and I'll see if I can't help you find an answer. Until next time, enjoy your spring!

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