After a long, mild, wet winter, we're finally beginning to try and put together two or three days in a row without rain. (Although it is storming for the third day straight as I type this!) With the coming of longer days and warmer, dryer weather, we horsemen face new challenges in looking after our beasts.
Weight & Condition: So you've curried five mattress cases full of winter coat off of Old Paint, and the physique underneath bears little resemblance to the horse you had last Autumn? Maybe he's a little ribby, since you cut back his grain a bit for the light winter workload, and the hair made you think he was heavier than he was. His muscle tone probably leaves something to be desired as well.
Be careful not to overreact and radically increase your horse's ration. If he goes out to pasture, he'll probably gain some weight from the Spring grass. If not, increase grain and hay gradually until you get the desired results. Be careful also about getting your horse back into good muscle... Sweating a little foam is never a bad thing, but don't try to make up for four months of inactivity in a week. Horses (like people) are susceptible to athletic injury when worked beyond their level of conditioning. They have even been known to have heart attacks, which we should keep in mind these days, with the average age of riding horses being older than ever before.
Hooves: Spring is a tough time for hooves. Ideally, hoof wall is fairly impervious to external moisture, but long-term soaking can mess that up... Being waterlogged, soft, and 'swollen' from the long, wet Winter, the hooves quickly dehydrate, shrink, and split during the dry spells in Spring. Then they soak up more water when the rains start up again, which causes them to swell and get soft again... Dirt and microorganisms get into the wall through the separated laminae and cracks, then eat away at the wall from inside.
Shoeing well is difficult at this time, since the hooves change size and shape with the weather, but the iron shoes don't. And a shoe is only as secure as the hoof wall it's nailed to, and the walls tend to be pretty trashy. This is why it may be a good idea to let the horses go barefoot as long as possible. Once their hooves have had a chance to dry and grow out the trashed wall, shoes stay on better and do less damage if they get pulled.
People often use hoof ointments to try and improve the cracked walls, but many moisturizers actually nourish the horn-digesting bacteria. The problem with the hooves isn't lack of moisture anyway, but too much variation in moisture. A little hoof dressing rubbed into the coronet may help stimulate the production of wall and slow down the radical changes in wall moisture, but it does more harm than good to goop the wall and sole. The single most effective thing you can do to get your horse's feet through the troublesome spring transition period more quickly is to feed him what he needs to replace all that bad hoof in a hurry... Biotin, selenium, and vitamin supplements can improve quality of hoof wall, but for sheer speed of hoof growth, nothing really beats bulk protein. 1/2 to 1 pound of a 30%-40% bulk protein supplement like Southern States Triple Crown or Purina Horse Charge added to the horse's grain feeding really seems to speed up the development of useful mass not only in the hooves but in the muscles as well.
Reproduction: In the last couple of years I've seen an increase in the number of foals around the area, and I must say I'm glad... I was beginning to worry that folks were forgetting that horses do have to be replaced every so often.
Many of you will be getting your first foals this season. Unless you have some special reason for concern (mare's first foal, older mare, etc.), the ideal scenario is to go out for the morning feed and find Junior nursing away. Then all you have to do is iodine his navel, administer a fleet enema, and make sure the afterbirth (placenta) is entire. A retained placenta can cause serious problems for the mare, so if you aren't confident in your ability to make sure it is all there, be sure to ask the vet. Sometimes you will find the afterbirth hanging from the mare, and this is not anything to worry about. Bundle it up into a ball and tie it with a bit of twine so that it hangs clear of the ground. Allow the weight of the ball to pull the afterbirth slowly out of the mare. Do not try to pull it free by hand, as it may tear and part of it may be left inside.
If you insist on sleeping in the barn to try and catch the birth, keep in mind that mares are very sneaky, and can wait until you slip back to the house for a quick snack. Also remember that, unless something goes wrong, the mare doesn't want or need your help. Just look to see that the foal's front feet and muzzle emerge first, as though the foal was jumping out of the mare and planning to land on his feet. Birth is hard work for mares, but not very painful. Don't be upset if the mare takes a short break with the foal half-presented to stand up, move around, maybe even nibble some hay. She knows that she has to finish the job. By the time the foal is out, the muzzle should be clear of the afterbirth. If not, step in and clear his face. The umbilical cord will take care of itself. Do not cut it.
It may take an hour or so for the foal to get to its feet and start nursing effectively. Be patient. Most often, your attempts to help the foal will only confuse and delay it. Some people believe that "imprinting", the practice of handling a newborn foal a lot, is important to the future training of the horse... It certainly doesn't hurt when done well, but I've known a lot of good horses that never had much human attention before they were riding age. Just make sure the foal's cuteness doesn't get the better of you... He's a future half-ton beast of burden, not a cuddly kitten.
Make sure the mare has unlimited amounts of cool, clean water. She needs it to make milk and to process the extra food she has to eat.
Of course, before you have to worry about foals, you have to get your mare bred... If you're thinking about doing this, be sure to take an honest look at her first. Like produces like, so if she's unsound, bad-tempered, or has conformational flaws, don't expect a perfect foal out of her. The same thing goes for the stallion. Just because the guy down the street has a stud he'll let you use doesn't make it a good idea. Foals are a big investment in time, effort, and money. So you'd may as well spend a few dollars more and breed your mare to a sound, well-built stallion with a good disposition.
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