Springtime is a busy time for horse keepers. After the long winter, no matter how mild or severe it might have been, there is a good deal to be done to make sure your horse is in good condition and ready for the summer months to come.
Grooming/Shedding: While March is considered ‘the month that ponies shed their hair’ there will still be quite a bit of rubbing and scratching going on to get rid of the last of those heavy winter coats. One of our horses is especially itchy – and we have to be diligent with her brushing and grooming routine. She has been known to rub on trees and branches so hard at times that she’s actually worn a raw spot on her skin! I found that adding a little corn or safflower oil to her feed is helpful in keeping her skin from being so dry and itchy. To keep her comfortable and assist in shedding out, I use a shedding blade; ours is a straight, flexible thin metal blade that bends in the middle and has a handle on each end with a keeper, so you have the option of using it straight with both hands or curved and affixed and held in one hand. Using it with both hands gives more control over bony and sensitive areas that need a very light hand, to sturdier pressure on heavily muscled areas on the neck and either side of the back. Follow with a nice curry going against the hair with a soft rubber curry, and then finish up brushing with the hair with a body brush. Be observant as to whether your horse enjoys vigorous grooming or prefers a more gentle touch.
Keep one set of brushes and curries for each horse, as diseases of the skin can be very contagious; sharing grooming equipment can easily spread lice and other parasites from horse to horse.
Remember that horses can get themselves into serious trouble if they are turned out with a halter. Never turn out a horse with a halter unless it is a ‘safety’ halter with a breakaway strap that will break if it gets caught on something – horses have been known to get their halters tangled or stuck on tree branches, water faucets, fence posts and other stationery objects, especially if they are reaching or rubbing to soothe an itch.
Spend time each day observing your horse, ideally while grooming – checking the skin and haircoat, body, legs, feet and head. Especially in the cold and damp weather that is typical of April, your horse will be exposed to muddy conditions; and for those horses that love to lie down and roll; you’ll need to allow extra time for grooming in order to keep them clean. Exposure to mud, coupled with poor grooming practices, can lead to scratches, rain rot and other ailments and diseases of the skin.
Pay attention to where your horse may be itchy and rubbing. If your horse is rubbing her tail, you’ll notice the hairs near the dock are broken or sticking up and out. This could be an indication of pinworms or other type of parasites; however the more common cause of tail rubbing is that your horse’s skin is dirty underneath the tail, between the hind legs, udder or sheath. During the cold winter weather we do not bathe our mares very often, but a regular cleaning of under the tail and in-between the udder with warm water, mild soap and soft towel, followed by a rinse of clean warm water and toweling dry will prevent any buildup that will cause a problem.
As your horse is shedding out, you might be surprised to find how much thinner she looks. As the days grow longer and the grass starts to grow, no doubt you’ll be changing your horse’s diet and will at some point be transitioning from hay to grass. If you are observant and keep records, you’ll be able to tell if your horse is maintaining, gaining or losing condition. This becomes especially important with older horses, very young horses, and performance horses. Monitoring body weight is a very helpful tool to use in determining dosages of de-wormers or other medications or supplements, and enables you to have a clearer picture of your horse’s overall condition.
Weight/management: While most of us don’t have a livestock scale, there is a way to measure your horse’s weight (and progress) using a flexible tape measure. Measure the circumference of your horse’s girth, from just behind your horse’s elbow, up over his withers and back under his belly. Next, measure the length of your horse’s body from the point of his shoulder to the point of his buttocks. These two measurements will enable you to calculate your horse’s weight, using the following formula: girth x girth x length divided by 330 = your horse’s body weight.
For example, if your horse has a girth of 70 inches, and a body length of 68 inches, his body weight would be: 70 x 70 x 68 divided by 330 =1,001 pounds.
It is interesting to follow up by using a weight tape to check your math – and see how close the measurements are.
Set a fixed regular time to check and record your horse’s weight. Record the date, the horse’s name, and weight. Also helpful to keep in your chart is a record of shoeing, vet visits, immunizations, when you’ve administered a de-wormer, as well as if you’ve changed feeds or supplements. You’d be surprised how quickly time goes by – and if you don’t record the date of when you started a new feed, or put the horse on new pasture or hay, you’ll surely forget. The tape is a helpful tool in determining how effective your feeding program is, and those recorded dates are important in maintaining an accurate record of the good care you’re providing for your horse.
Spring exams: Spring is a good time to have your horse’s teeth checked, ideally by an equine dentist, who will perform a more thorough checkup and floating (filing) than the veterinarian. If you notice any whole grains passing through in the manure, or see cigar-shaped wads of hay or grass where your horse is eating, it’s time for a checkup. Spring is also time for immunizations, especially if you’ll be showing you’re horse or riding with others. Keep up with your horse’s trimming and shoeing schedule – while some horse owners think it’s okay to pull shoes in the fall and wait till they’re ready to ride in mid-April to call the farrier, they are doing their horse a dis-service. Whether he has shoes or not, regular trimming during winter and early spring is important to keep your horse comfortable and better be able to negotiate icy and muddy conditions.
As the weather warms and the frost comes out of the ground, pastures and fields will be muddy and soft in spots – sometimes in places you don’t expect. I remember riding in early April many years ago, on a tractor road up on the mountain. The trail was free of ice and snow, but suddenly my mare must have stepped on a ‘sink hole’ and her hind leg disappeared up past her hock! I immediately dismounted to check the situation and was afraid of the worst – a broken leg, or at least a sprain. She was shivering but fortunately remained calm and I was able to guide her out slowly. I walked her for quite a ways before she regained her confidence and I felt it would be okay to ride her again. Needless to say, we were careful to stick to harder ground on our early spring rides after that frightening experience.
Spring Cleaning: Lastly, take stock of your tack room, feed room, and wherever you keep your horse’s first aid kit, medications and supplements. Tack should be cleaned and in good repair. Check leather straps for wear or cracks, missing grommets, broken buckles and the like. Feed, medications and supplements should be checked for expiration dates; throw out any that are outdated and replace them immediately so that you will be prepared for the busy summer months ahead.