If you own an “easy keeper” or a horse confirmed to be insulin-resistant, a grazing muzzle will quickly become the most important piece of equipment in your barn. You will have the most success with weight control if you start muzzling your horse in early spring, before the first haze of new green grass appears.
A grazing muzzle with an open hole in the bottom limits the horse’s grass intake to one quarter of what he’d consume without the muzzle. If you’ve restricted pasture turnout to one hour, your horse can now possibly tolerate four hours of freedom if he’s wearing his muzzle.
If he becomes laminitic with any grazing, however, you can close off the small opening in the bottom of the muzzle, either with duct tape or a commercial “plug” designed specifically for that purpose. Your horse will then be able to safely wander the paddock interacting with his friends and escaping the boredom of stall confinement. You may also be able to combine the two approaches, allowing your horse open-hole grazing for a few hours in the morning, and then closed-hole turnout for the afternoon turnout.
Introducing the muzzle is a nonevent for most horses. Adjust the cheek pieces long enough so the throat latch strap falls in the horse’s natural throat area. Shorten the crown strap so there is a gap of one inch between the horse’s nose and the bottom of the muzzle. Bait the muzzle with a safe treat: an alfalfa cube or a familiar piece of sugar-free candy both work well. Use the treat every time you put on the muzzle, and your horse will soon be enthusiastically trying to jam his nose into the muzzle before you’ve even gotten the straps straightened out.
Teach the horse to graze through the open hole by starting on short grass, like a lawn. Most horses will immediately dive their heads down, snuffle around a bit, and start eating with little hesitation. If you’ve got one that seems particularly flummoxed by the whole idea, pull some grass and stuff it through the hole in the bottom of the muzzle until he grabs it.Continue doing this, but hold the grass lower each time, until your hand is actually on the ground.
After your horse has worn the muzzle on turnout for a few days, you may notice rubbed areas or bald spots developing. Depending on the shape of the horse’s head, the abraded hair could be under the chin or on the top of the nose. Invest in a yard of synthetic fleece, cut a piece to cover the offending area, and whip-stitch it on by hand with heavy-duty thread. When the fleece becomes soiled, cut if off and replace it. If the fleece becomes soaked, dry it thoroughly to prevent scald under the area. HINT: Light or bright-colored fleece makes the muzzle easier to find if it gets lost in the paddock.
Grazing muzzles have proven to be quite safe, with a built-in weak spot at the plastic connections on the crown strap; the cheek pieces also tear loose if the horse accidentally steps into the muzzle. A design that incorporates the halter may prove a better fit than the one that attaches to a turnout halter. The better grazing muzzles, while pricey, offer a wide range of sizes from mini to draft, a reinforced hole in the bottom, and come with replacement snaps.
Horses that are turned out with “plugged” muzzles often learn to tip the muzzle and obtain grass through the webbing on the side. You can close up the lower openings by either weaving baling twine in and out of the openings until they’re closed off, or by having your tack-repair man stitch another line of nylon webbing along the bottom of the muzzle basket.
Horses wearing plugged muzzles should have access to a safe feed, such as hay soaked for an hour to remove the soluble carbs and/or molasses-free beet pulp, at frequent intervals, preferably no longer than five to six hours between feedings, since they won’t be able to graze. This helps prevent hunger, frustration and ulcers.
In addition to insulin-resistant, fat and foundered horses, grazing muzzles are also useful for cribbers and confirmed wood chewers. Use the muzzle for turnout and give your horse a break from the tight cribbing strap he normally wears.
We hope you have accepted the idea of a grazing muzzle, but expect to get raised eyebrows and the occasional “it’s mean” remark from the uninformed.Remind those who criticize that nothing is as cruel as the pain of laminitis or forcing your horse to live its life in stall confinement. We’re betting that a few years from now, it will be rare to drive by a pasture and not see at least one horse sporting a muzzle. Just pat yourself on the back for putting your horse’s welfare first and for once again being on the cutting edge. (See also March 2003, www.horse-journal.com, 800-424-7887.)