Do you have this dilemma? You want to turn your horse out, because you know the movement, natural grazing, and interaction with pasture buddies are all excellent for his physical and mental health. But your horse is an easy keeper that gets fat on pasture turnout—not good for his health. Or maybe he’s especially laminitis-prone, and you must be particularly careful he doesn’t get too much grass.
What to do? For more and more horse owners in this situation, the humble grazing muzzle is becoming an indispensable horse-management tool. The hole at the bottom of the muzzle allows a horse to graze, but cuts down considerably on the amount of grass he can consume.
With a properly fitted muzzle, your horse can still enjoy pasture time with friends without becoming obese or increasing his risk of founder.
We asked Jessica Jahiel, author, clinician, lecturer, and moderator of the popular Horse-Sense Newsletter of Holistic Horsemanship® (horse-sense.org) to share key do’s and don’ts on the use of grazing muzzles.
Here’s what she told us:
DO fit the muzzle carefully, then check it often during the first few wearings to make sure it fits correctly. There should be one inch from your horse’s lips to the bottom of the muzzle, plus room for you to insert three or four fingers sideways into the muzzle—between it and your horse’s face—to allow room for chewing. (Test the fit by placing a treat or handful of grass in the muzzle to see if your horse can chew it.) As long as the muzzle fits correctly, it won’t interfere with your horse’s drinking, but it will interfere with his grazing, which, of course, is what you want. (The muzzle also prevents salt consumption—more on that in a moment.)
DO experiment with different types of muzzles to see which works best for your horse. The popular Best Friend Grazing Muzzle comes in two models—one has its own built-in breakaway headstall, and one attaches with a hook-and-loop fabric fastener to your horse’s safety halter. Some owners find that the attach-to-the-halter model works best for escape artists.
DO watch your horse to see how well he can drink water with the muzzle on. When I say, “won’t interfere with his drinking,” I mean it won’t interfere physically, but some horses drink less when they’re wearing muzzles, so you’ll need to take this into consideration throughout his wearing time.
DON’T put the muzzle on and forget about it. If your horse is turned out 24/7 (something I highly recommend wherever possible), remove the muzzle for an hour or so, twice a day. Do this either within the pasture so your horse can graze freely and consume water and salt, or (if even that much free-choice grass is problematic for him) in a dry lot or other enclosure where he can be given water, salt, and hay.
DON’T leave a seriously at-risk horse unsupervised in a grassy pasture for long periods, even if he is muzzled. If your horse has a compelling medical reason for limited grass intake—such as serious laminitis risk, insulin resistance, or pronounced Cushing’s disease—then the downside of even one grass-bingeing mishap, in the event the muzzle does come off, presents too great a risk. Keep an eye on him.
DO allow time for your horse to completely adjust to the muzzle before deciding whether it will work for him. Some horses figure it out and take to it almost instantaneously; others require a bit longer; but most do make the adjustment with time. Even horses that wind up not grazing in the muzzle as much as you’d expected still benefit from being turned out and moving freely while enjoying the company of other horses.
DO encourage your horse to look forward to being muzzled by placing a carrot piece or other treat inside the cup the first few times you put it on him. Also, consider fleece tubing (the kind meant to go on halter straps) if you run into problems with rubs.
DON’T feel bad if uninformed people tsk-tsk over the “cruelty” of a muzzle. You know the truth—a horse that’s free to exercise and socialize won’t care that he’s getting less grass than he’d like. (And he couldn’t care less what it looks like!)