Ways to manage your horses during the coronavirus pandemic *H&H Plus*

  • As many owners are making significant adjustments to their horse’s spring routines in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve put some frequently asked healthcare questions to a panel of experts to help you decide what is best for your horse…

    Emerging from the coronavirus crisis with a happy, healthy horse means thinking carefully about his management regime throughout the weeks ahead. While your decisions may be dictated by your own physical and financial circumstances, along with the current movement restrictions placed upon vets and farriers, it’s worth considering the long-term implications of what you do right now.

    Should I open fields early to simplify management?

    It’s tempting to turn horses out to save money and time, but bear in mind the season, says Lesley Barwise-Munro MRCVS.

    “There may be more wet weather ahead and fields could become poached,” she warns. “It’s worth preserving land a while longer, if you can, especially in the north where harsh weather can persist into April.

    “Laminitis is a real risk as spring grass comes through,” adds Lesley, who advises strict management of grass intake for animals in good body condition or those with laminitic tendencies.

    “Grass sickness can also be a danger at this time of year in certain parts of the UK and on properties with a history of the disease. While partial stabling reduces the risk, as does supplementary feeding with haylage, be careful about increasing grazing – especially if moving horses to new fields.”

    Can I delay routine healthcare?

    The current requirement is that equine vets cease all “routine and non-essential work”. As soon as is practicable, however, Lesley advises that routine healthcare is resumed.

    “Vaccinations are having to be delayed, following advice from the veterinary professional organisations, but it is important to keep in touch with your practice for the latest advice,” she says.

    “Spring is a key time for encysted redworm larvae activity, so worm control (based on faecal egg counts, which are still available) should be maintained to reduce the risk of permanent internal damage and colic. Paddock poo-picking is effective for worm control and costs nothing but time.”

    Once regulations are lifted, money may be tight and services under strain. Can routine treatments be delayed further?

    “Regular dental checks are part of good management, but could be deferred for several weeks – especially for a horse in less demanding work,” says Lesley, who stresses that an animal in pain must be treated. “If a colt can be managed safely, there are benefits to postponing castration until autumn when there is less chance of fly strike and wound contamination after surgery.

    “Significant lameness poses a welfare concern if ignored, but investigating mild lameness that is only performance-limiting can probably be delayed until the Covid-19 crisis is over,” adds Lesley.

    “Physio treatment is vital for a horse in training with ongoing issues, but useful exercises such as baited stretches and polework can be carried out at home in the meantime.”

    Will my horse still need hard feed?

    “The fit sport horse kept in reasonably hard work will need only minor dietary adjustments, but remember that a reduction in workload without a corresponding decrease in hard feed can trigger exertional rhabdomyolysis (also known as azoturia, or tying up),” says Lesley Barwise-Munro.

    “Further into the grass-growing season, a good-doer – even one in a degree of work – can be maintained on hay, grass and a balancer. He may require dietary restriction, however, to avoid weight gain and risk of laminitis.”

    Lesley advises making any dietary changes gradually, to avoid colic, and using a weightape as a rough guide to monitor body condition.

    Should I extend shoeing intervals?

    Currently, registered farriers must work in accordance with guidelines issued by the Farriers Registration Council (FRC). While it’s understandable that some owners may seek to economise, both during and beyond the present lockdown, master farrier Ben Benson AWCF stresses the importance of heeding professional advice.

    “It may be that shoeing intervals can be lengthened without detriment to the horse, especially if his workload is lessened,” he says. “Where possible, however, remember that regular shoeing is always an important factor when maintaining soundness – especially in older horses or those with biomechanical issues.

    “Correct foot balance is critical to managing issues such as hock or coffin joint problems, splints and suspensory ligament injuries. Be guided by your farrier, who understands your horse’s requirements.”

    Would barefoot be better?

    “This may seem a good idea, but it can lead to problems further down the line,” says Ben. “Shoes must be taken off correctly and the feet trimmed properly. There may be weakness where the nail holes were and bruising can occur with a horse not used to being barefoot.

    “Refitting shoes may be an option, or taking just the hind shoes off if a horse or pony works largely in a school or has really strong, native feet,” he adds. “But those needing bar shoes, for example, or hoof packing, will not cope. Considering the amount of setback that can occur, going barefoot may not be advisable for what will hopefully be two or three shoeing cycles at the most.”

    How quickly is fitness lost?

    “While human athletes might start to lose fitness after two weeks of significantly reducing or stopping exercise, scientific studies have proven that horses are able to maintain a high degree of fitness for much longer – perhaps up to several months,” says equine exercise physiologist Dr David Marlin.

    “When an unfit horse starts to exercise, the biggest increase in fitness is seen in the first four weeks or so as the body initially responds quite quickly and dramatically,” he adds, explaining how changes to the muscles and heart result in increased aerobic capacity. “Once fit, horses don’t need as much exercise to maintain fitness. As work decreases or if it stops, however, everything slips slowly back to how it was before training.”

    Can I keep my horse competition-ready?

    A key decision is whether to significantly reduce your horse’s workload or maintain his training at a level that will allow him to compete should we see shows and events resume this summer. This depends on many factors, says David, including the horse’s competition experience, inherent ability, pre-existing health issues, previous injuries, discipline, level and temperament.

    “Reducing work and then bringing it back up is definitely possible and would be advisable in any case if there were several months between events,” he says. “Keeping a horse in full work for long periods of time serves no purpose and can make him stale, as well as increasing the risk of injury.

    “We saw with the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak that many horses came out sounder and performed better after the enforced lay-off,” adds David. “Almost all studies point to over-use as opposed to under-use as being a significant contributing factor in injury. Many injuries are the result of a slow build-up of damage which suddenly results in an apparent ‘accident’. We can also see the beneficial effect of even a short-term reduction in training load on performance – known as exercise tapering.

    “In general terms, as there are no competitions, it might be wise to wind down the fitness-specific workload, maybe to 50% – and three sessions a week would be sufficient to keep most horses ticking over. When we get the all-clear, it should be possible to regain fitness in around four to six weeks from such a baseline.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 2 April 2020

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