Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Horse Hay Belly – What Is It?

What IS Hay Belly, Anyway?
I didn't get my first horse until I was in my 30s (circa 1981), so I had a lot to learn back then. One of the things I learned early on in my horse experience was what a hay belly is on a horse and what to do about it if it develops.

So, what IS a hay belly? "Hay belly" is often a junk term used to describe a horse with a distended gut. What's causing the distension in the horse's belly is more a cause for concern than the actual look of it. Always be sure to properly worm your horse – a horse with worms will have a distended gut, but this is NOT hay belly!

My equine vet here in Brainerd, Dr. Greg Harms, explains the various "meanings" of hay belly:
"Hay belly" is a layman's term that can mean different things to different people. 
Firstly, it's most commonly associated with feeding a poor quality or low protein forage with no grain supplement. This causes the distention of the abdomen because of increased volume of feed stuffs and decreased musculature from low protein. 
Some people will also give multiparous mares this adjective because of their pendulous abdomen. 
And finally, some young horses that are heavily parasitized and/or poorly fed will get this moniker.

A real hay belly – the one we're talking about here – is the distended gut the horse gets due to the poor quality feed it's eating.

What Causes Hay Belly in a Horse?
Okay, so a hay belly is caused by the horse's food...but what actually causes the belly to distend?

Unfortunately, some horse people think "hay belly" means the horse is eating too much hay. That's not the case at all.

The culprit of hay belly is poor quality hay or grass. Horses – like any animal – need the proper amount of nutrients in order to maintain their weight and health. Horses' digestive systems are built to effectively extract nutrients from "roughage" (hay and grass). Since horses don't have their own way to break down fiber, they rely on bacteria in their large intestine (the hindgut) to ferment the hay/grass. Low quality hay or grass will remain in the hindgut for longer periods of time, causing the bacteria to work overtime trying to extract any nutrients it can...this causes extra fermentation, which in turn distends the belly. Read: hay belly!

Does My Horse Have Hay Belly, or is He Fat?
Again, sadly a lot of horse people think their horses are fat because of their swollen bellies, when in fact the horses are suffering from poor quality forage.

How do you tell the difference between a horse being fat and a horse with a hay belly? Simple. Poor quality hay (or grass) doesn't have enough protein in it. Horses use protein to maintain (or build) muscle. So, if your horse has a big belly and has little muscle mass, your horse is suffering from poor quality forage.

The equine veterinarian my daughter uses, Dr. Donna Rued, weighed in on how to spot a hay belly:
Hay belly is when a horse bloats from eating a lot of low quality hay with not enough protein. If they're not getting enough, their muscles will show it – they'll either have little muscle mass or will be losing muscle due to lack of protein in their diet.

A healthy horse should never lose muscle mass – even when not being ridden for extended periods of time. If your horse has a big belly but is losing muscle mass, you need to do a few things:
  • Get better quality hay. 
  • If your horse is on pasture, you need to supplement with good quality  hay.
  • Provide your horse with a protein supplement – i.e., grain. 
If you don't have the means to acquire good quality hay for your horses, you absolutely need to provide them with grain to supplement the protein they're not getting in their forage. However, beware of feeding too much grain: this can be dangerous to a horse! Too much grain can cause colic and/or founder. Grain should only ever be used as a supplement; not the sole means of providing a horse with all its needed nutrients.

My Horse is on a Round Bale, Why Should I Worry About Hay Belly?
Just because your horse has 24/7 access to hay doesn't mean it can't suffer from hay belly. Again, it's poor quality hay (or pasture) that causes hay belly; not the quantity the horse gets.

Case in point: my daughter's horse this past winter. She moved him from our house (free-choice, good quality round bale; no grain and in excellent condition) last fall to a stable down in the Cities. For the last couple months this late winter/early spring he'd been on a round bale and was receiving grain (oats + Safe Choice + Empower Boost)...yet he was losing muscle mass (and weight) and she was beginning to see his ribs, even though his belly was "big." She knew all he had was a hay belly...and that it was time to remedy the situation (the barn owners thought everything was fine and that it was normal for horses to lose weight in winter).

After moving her gelding to her vet's stable (where she was told he would be weaned onto a high-quality hay so he could gain weight by getting much-needed protein) she noticed a drop in the horse's hay belly and a return of his muscle mass (within 10 days). She no longer needs to feed him a fat supplement; he receives Safe Choice pellets once a day and good quality hay several times a day. And doesn't have a hay belly anymore.

So, just because a horse is on a round bale and getting grain doesn't mean the horse is fine. Make sure your hay (or pasture grass) is good quality – if you're in doubt, you can even take the hay to get its contents tested.

Hopefully it doesn't get to that point – mistaking a hay belly for a fat horse is a rookie mistake (one I made early on in my horse years, I'll admit!).

Some online resources about hay belly, nutrition,
When in doubt, the most important diagnosis of whether or not your horse has a hay belly needs to come from your equine vet.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

What Does a Red Ribbon Tied in a Horse Tail Mean?

This past September while attending the Minnesota State 4-H Horse show I saw a horse standing quietly in the waiting area to enter the Coliseum that was sporting a red ribbon in its tail. I then heard something that boggled my mind: a couple of 4-Hers walked past and one asked the other, "What's the red ribbon for?" "I dunno," answered her friend.

I was shocked. What horseback rider doesn't know the telltale sign of a red ribbon tied in a horse's tail? I learned at a VERY young age – most likely as soon as I climbed on my pony and went for a trail ride at the age of 7 – that a red ribbon tied into a horse tail signifies a horse that kicks.

While many horses kick at other horses in the pasture at feeding time – and this is normal behavior – there are also horses that will kick out at any other horse if it gets too close. This isn't ideal behavior, but by tying a red ribbon into the tail of a kicking horse you're at least alerting other riders to stay back.

In a horse show situation, especially with young riders in big classes, horses can get very close to one another while performing. All riders should know proper etiquette before entering the show ring, but a very important lesson to learn is not to crowd other horses. Many easy-going horses won't retaliate if a strange horse comes to near their hindquarters, but many horses – especially young or green horses – become frightened in close quarters and will strike out.

Tying a red ribbon on a horse's tail will alert other riders – whether it's in the show arena or out on the trail – to keep a good distance back from that horse, or it will kick.

But, riders need to know the significance of the red ribbon in order for it to work. I see it less and less these days; obviously younger riders are unaware of its meaning but I think it should be common practice. Horseback riders need to be taught basic knowledge of horses before they ever climb into the saddle – learning the meaning of a red ribbon tied into a horse tail should be part of that process.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lacey's Eye Problem Follow-Up

I recently spent some time going back over some of my older posts, re-reading and refreshing my memory.  There were two posts that I realized I never followed up on, mainly because the subject matter was sad and for quite a while I had a hard time dealing with it.

The first post was written around this time last year and concerned the eye inflammation of our quarter horse mare, Lacey, I had gotten for my granddaughter.  I had left off where I was going to be taking Lacey to the vet to have him check out the growth in the corner of her eye that had not gone away.  I mentioned that my vet had told me it could be one of a few things: conjunctivitis, a foreign matter in the tear duct, or squamous cell sarcoma.  I was really hoping that it wouldn’t be the last – and it wasn’t.  It was worse.  After taking the growth out and sending it to two separate labs for biopsy, the report came back from both that it was malignant lymphoma.  All of us were crushed and the vet said that best case scenario would be that we would have 2 years yet with her.  But it was not to be.

In some respects, Dr. Harms told me that I was lucky that I had found out exactly what was going on with the mare as most people whose horse was suffering from this had no idea what was wrong and only found out when the horse died and an autopsy was done.  He told me that the only outward sign, usually, was that a horse would start losing weight for seemingly no reason and would come down with fevers and infections that would be very hard to recover from even with large doses of antibiotics.

With that being said, I should have suspected what was going on with Lacey when she started losing weight in October.  But it was a nasty month here, cold and rainy, and all I have is a three-sided shed for shelter.  It was taking more feed than normal for all my horses to keep their weight up and I just figured she needed more.  I was in denial and was concentrating on the “2 years” that I was supposed to have yet with Lacey.  Therefore, I took her to the barn where I board my mare, Joon, and Lacey loved it there.  Inside a large stall at night, lots of food, plenty of attention, and she picked her weight up nicely.  Ah, problem solved...I thought.  But then Lacey got an infection in her foot in January that wouldn’t heal no matter what we did and she went downhill from there.

The second post I could have commented on was done last January regarding emergency instructions for my horses before heading off on my vacation to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  I had left copies of a letter with my friend, Max, and with the barn owner where I was boarding Lacey at the time documenting what I would like done with my animals should an emergency occur.  How thankful I was that I had done that!  Neither Max, nor Eric, had to waste time trying to locate me when Lacey collapsed and needed to be put down immediately.

It was an extremely sad event but at the same time I was so thankful I'd put in place a plan for this very reason.

In retrospect, I should have called my vet out to look at Lacey in October and he most likely would have advised me at that point to put her down.  I feel badly that I probably put the poor mare through more than I should have, but what’s done is done and I have learned from the experience.

Lacey, you were such a good girl and you are missed...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Teaching a Child How to Trail Ride a Horse

Trail riding is a favorite pastime of mine. This past weekend was no exception: camping and riding horses with family and friends in Pillsbury State Forest.  Although hot, there weren’t too many bugs since we had a breeze – actually a wind! – keeping them off and cooling us down.  This group is usually known to take long rides, 4 to 5 hours at a time, coming back to camp for a rest and then going out again for another couple hours of riding.

But this time we had my 5-year-old granddaughter with us so we were limited in the amount of time we could be out.  Although Sophia has been on a horse before – being led around in an arena and competing in a leadline class at a couple of shows – she hasn’t spent a lot of time riding and had never been on a trail ride.  I was a little nervous about taking her camping with us, thinking that I’d have to stay back at camp with her while others went out on the trails, but my friend Max assured me that Sophia could go along and would have fun.

Max has started quite a few young kids (nieces and nephews ) horseback riding, and has a sure-fire method of getting them going.  She said that if you put a child up behind you on the horse, they can’t see where they’re going and tend to fall asleep back there.  Her method is to saddle the horse with a pony saddle and have the child ride in the front, handling the reins, while she sits behind them for support and confidence.  To quote Max, “you can accomplish in two days on the trail what you cannot do in six months in an arena!”

As we started out, Sophia was a little nervous and at the first hill was saying “I don’t like this, I don’t like this!”  But by the end of the ride, only an hour and a half long, she was giggling and saying “let’s go faster!”  We came back to camp for lunch and a rest and a little while later Max asked who was ready for another ride; it was Sophia who jumped up first with her hand in the air saying “I am, I am!”  That ride was only an hour and the only way we could get her off the horse at the end was to promise to go out again later, which we did.

The next day we had to almost start over again with the confidence, but it wasn’t long before Sophia was riding along with the reins in just one hand and the other pointing out things along the trail.

Tips For Starting Out:
Max gave us a few pointers in starting children trail riding.

First and foremost, use a horse that is calm, child-safe, is used to trail riding and has been ridden double before.
Be sure the child knows at least the basics in horse riding: how to "go" and "whoa," how to steer, etc.

Always use safe equipment – including a helmet for the child's safety!

Keep in mind: the adult rider will be sitting back a little further on the horse’s back than normal. The horse not only shouldn’t mind this, but needs a back strong enough to support two riders.  Before we put Sophia up on that first ride, Max got on the horse we were using – Will, my Arabian gelding – and rode him around the camp for a little bit while sitting behind the pony saddle to test his ability.

Next, have a pad that can be attached to the back of the pony saddle for the adult rider to sit on.  This bridges the gap between the back of the saddle and the saddle pad, making it more comfortable to sit back there.

You must also realize that horseback riding on the trail takes a lot out of a young child, so keep the rides short in duration.

It's always recommended the adult take the reins for letting the horse graze or drink.

The last thing is to take along snacks and water, even on the short rides, as once they get low blood sugar the whining starts.  At that point, stick a lollipop in their mouth!

If the proper steps are taken to ensure everyone's safety – for riders AND their horses – trail riding horses can be a fun and rewarding experience for everyone!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Seat Aid: Shifting Weight

Not too long ago, I was riding my mare Joon in the arena at the barn, doing serpentines and was so pleased with her responses to me. It seemed all I had to do was turn my head to look where I wanted to go and she would already be bending around in that direction. It was like she was reading my mind.

After our riding session, my friend Max and I were sitting having a cup of coffee going over what we had practiced that day on our horses. When I told Max that Joon had been “reading my mind,” she told me that no, Joon was just feeling my shift in weight as I turned my head. I was surprised because I thought I had stayed straight in the saddle and hadn’t leaned or twisted – other than my head – in any direction.

To explain what was happening, Max had me sit on my hands while sitting up straight as if I were in the saddle. Then she had me turn just my head and feel the difference in my hands. Try it yourself and you’ll see how the pressure on your seat bones changes with just even a small movement. No wonder horses can react to our slightest moves and be so “in tune” to their riders. Can you imagine how sensitive their backs are to feel that slight movement even through a saddle?

It makes me so much more aware of how much pressure I am exerting on my horses’ backs when riding, and even mounting. I am careful when mounting not to just drop down on their back, and I’m working a lot harder on posting softly at the trot.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Training Technique to Loosen a Horse's Hind End

How do I get my horse to engage his rear end?
This is a common question among horseback riders. Whether you need your horse to be more 'rounded'/collected in the show ring or you're working a green horse, this is a great technique for loosening a horse's hind end.

This groundwork exercise teaches a horse to engage his hind end, which of course helps him get off his forehand, too. Here Max demonstrates with Will, my Arabian gelding, whose conformation has always made it a bit of a problem to collect him up and make him drive with his hind end.

Use lateral movement to encourage better balance, suppleness, and responsiveness in your horse. Here we are asking the horse to move his hind legs further under his body, thus increasing impulsion and movement. This will create more even muscle building on both sides. It will also check to see quickly if both sides of the horse's body are supple, which we find on this gelding is not the case. This exercise is the simplest of lateral movements and will also help when mounted and asking the horse to move away from leg pressure: to execute a proper side pass, leg yield or half-pass.

A simple groundwork exercise which takes only a few minutes, this training technique can make a world of difference to get your horse rounded by driving with her rear end, as well as make her lift her shoulders up to get off her forehand.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Emergency Instructions for My Horses

In just under 3 weeks we are planning on heading south to our condo in Puerto Vallarta for a few weeks of vacation in the sun. I’ve been busy lining things up and planning what to pack. A very important part of my planning is the care of my animals. It isn’t just a case of who will feed them, but what should the people in charge do in case of an emergency.

My neighbor will be in charge of the horses I have here at the house; he knows how to run the tractor to put out the round hay bales, he’ll check on the horses daily and make sure the automatic waterer keeps working. He’s familiar with horses and knows how to handle them, knows who to call if the waterer quits working and has the name and phone number of our veterinarian.

Two more of my horses are boarded at a barn not far away. I don’t worry about their care as they are wonderfully looked after, but my vet’s number is also handy for them to have.

But I will be out of the country and won't be easy to get hold of in case of an emergency. What then? I need to leave a list of instructions so that it is totally clear as to what I would like done in case of an emergency. I have left my friend, Max, in charge of all decisions, but I have given her a list of my preferences for each horse. I’ve had to make some hard choices about what I would like done, and how much money should be spent for each horse. I have an old, retired horse with arthritis, one with a life-limiting health problem, one who is a great riding horse but needs an expensive drug each riding season, and 2 more horses that are wonderful riding horses and have many years left in them.

So with each person who has the care of my horses I have left a list of the following: vet’s name and number; Max’s name and number; and each horse’s information (name, age, sex and health conditions). With my vet, with Max, and with the owner of the barn where I have two of my horses, I have left instructions as to what I would like done and how much money should be spent in the case of an emergency. It is also important that I line up with everyone how the bills should be paid until I arrive home.

And last, but not least, what if the unthinkable happens – we have an accident and don’t ever arrive home? I would like to know that all of my animals, including the dog and barn cat, are taken care of, that they go to good homes. In that case, I have a letter describing what I would like done with each of them, signed and put in with our wills. It isn’t a pleasant thought, but I wouldn’t want them just hauled off to an auction.

*Addendum: read more about why it's a good idea to have this type of plan laid out before vacation here.