Seven Hidden Dangers Common in Every Barn


hidden dangers in every barnIn their natural state, horses tend to lead consistent, uncomplicated lives. However, even in the very best barns with the most conscientious owners, modern horses are often subjected to unnatural stresses that can pose serious health risks, from colic to gastric ulcers, and beyond.

Evolution & Natural Tendencies
Horses have evolved over millions of years as nomadic prey animals who find safety in numbers, traveling as a member of a relatively consistent herd. As “trickle feeders,” horses spend the majority of their days grazing (10-17 hours per day!) and, left to their own devices, they spend most of their time slowly walking as they graze, only occasionally running from predators or to play.

Health Risks & Unnatural Stress in Every Barn
It doesn’t matter if a horse lives in a backyard barn or a world-class show facility, every modern horse is exposed to some level of unnatural stress that can put their health and wellbeing at risk. “As much as we love our horses, it’s important to realize that domestic horse-keeping can be inherently ‘unnatural’ and stressful for them,” said Dr. Lydia Gray, SmartPak’s Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director. “SmartPak is committed to educating horse owners and professionals about the management practices that put horses’ health at risk, and how we can be smarter about their care.”

Here are seven of the most common practices that are at odds with what nature intended, and may be putting your horse’s health at risk:

fence icon1. Large, infrequent meals and limited grazing
Because horses were designed to constantly take in small amounts of food, their stomachs are always producing gastric acid to aid in digestion, whether there is food present or not. Normally as horses graze, their bicarbonate-rich saliva mixes with the long-stem forage they’re consuming and protects the sensitive stomach lining from the corrosive effects of this gastric acid. But the longer a horse’s stomach sits empty and unprotected in between large meals the more at risk he is for developing gastric ulcers.

Plus, the lower portion of the stomach (where gastric acid is actually produced) is lined with glandular mucosa. Not only is this lining built to withstand the harsh effects of stomach acid, it also produces bicarbonate and mucus as an added layer of protection. The upper portion of the stomach is lined with non-glandular mucosa which is less able to hold up to acid exposure and does not produce protective material like mucus and bicarb, making it that much more important to feed small meals frequently or allow grazing.

icon horse and rider2. Exercise & training
Exercise and training, especially on an empty stomach, can have significant impacts on a horse’s health. Thinking about the anatomy of the stomach described above, if a horse is trotting and cantering on an empty stomach, all that constantly produced gastric acid can end up splashing and “sloshing” around in the stomach, coming into contact with the sensitive non-glandular mucosa and increasing the risk for gastric ulcers.

Additionally, exercise and training can contribute to wear and tear on joints and soft tissues,2 potentially leading to permanent, irreversible damage like arthritis. Normally, the horse’s body has natural abilities to repair the minimal levels of wear and tear that are associated with low-impact activities, like walking and grazing. However, when we put horses into concentrated training and exercise programs, the associated wear and tear can outpace the body’s ability to maintain and repair joint and soft tissue structures, resulting in damage that can compromise soundness and performance.

icon 2 horses3. Changing herds
In the wild, herds are consistent, with few new adult horses joining, and a steady hierarchy of dominance. This is not always the case with modern horses, who may move from barn to barn, travel for competitions, and regularly meet and interact with new horses, which can result in stress as the “pecking order” is reestablished.

icon horse trailer4. Trailering and travel
Shipping a horse from one location to another comes with inherent stresses that can increase the risk of developing gastric ulcers1, as well as putting stress on the immune system, which may result in compromised function.

icon barn5. Increased stall time
Time spent in a stall is a fact of life for most horses, but it can have some pretty unpleasant downsides including limited movement, which can contribute to joint stiffness.

Lack of activity can also lead to reduced circulation throughout the body, which is particularly troublesome for hooves. This is because hoof structures are nourished by the blood circulating through the hoof, which delivers vital nutrients to help keep those structures strong and resilient. As a result, poor circulation is often a precursor to weak, cracking, unhealthy hooves.

Perhaps most concerning of all, increased stall time is associated with an increased risk of both ulcers1 and colic.

icon bucket6. High-grain diets
Fresh pasture is a horse’s natural feed source, however most modern barns don’t have access to rolling acres of green fields. As a result, many horse owners have turned to grain to add calories to their horses’ diets to help maintain weight and support energy levels. However, grains are not a natural feed source for horses, and are much more calorie dense than pasture, in addition to having inversed relationships of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, among other things. These disparities all add up to high-grain diets being associated with increased risk of ulcers1 and colic, unhealthy weight gain, along with excess energy and excitability.

icon arrows7. Sudden changes in hay or grain (type or amount)
Changing from a quarter scoop of grain to a half scoop might not seem like a big adjustment, but it can have significant impacts on a horse’s digestive health. Changing the type or amount of grain being fed has been linked to a 5X increase in colic risk. 4 Similarly, feeding a new cut of hay (even from the same field!) or switching from grass to alfalfa has been shown to increase a horse’s colic risk up to 10 times!

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