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Grazing muzzles for horses / ponies-the reasons for and against using one

Mar 31, 2021

Grazing muzzles are meant to restrict the grass intake of a horse or pony (from now on, we will use the word horse to mean both horse and pony). They are not meant to prevent a horse from eating grass altogether. You should never restrict a horse from eating altogether – if you did not know this, make sure you read this article www.equiculture.net/blog/what-is-essential-feed-for-a-horse

Research has shown that grazing muzzles can reduce grass intake by up to 80%. So they do reduce intake very effectively

Grazing muzzles have definite pros and cons, and people tend to feel very strongly one way or the other about them. This video and article aim to give you both 'sides of the story' so that you can make up your mind. They go through those pros and cons and include a few you have probably never heard before, so stick with us to learn about this important subject.

The main reasons in favour of using a grazing muzzle on a horse or pony

Using a grazing muzzle means that a horse can still live/be turned out with their herd mates and socialise with them (as opposed to being 'locked up' on their own – which leads to very high-stress levels). Remember, horses are herd animals, and socialisation is essential. Horses are not meant to live on their own.

Also, and more research is needed on this subject; studies have shown that stress may lead to weight gain and illness. So it can be counterproductive to force a horse to lose weight by 'locking them up' and restricting feed.

While a horse is socialising, they are also usually moving (if they are grazing together with other horses), so a bonus of using a grazing muzzle and allowing turnout is the extra movement gained.

Using a grazing muzzle means that feed intake may be more even throughout the day and night rather than a pattern of low intake followed by high intake and possible gorging. Gorging happens if a horse is yarded/stabled on restricted food and then turned out for a grazing period (unmuzzled) each day.

Using a grazing muzzle for a two to three-hour grazing 'bout' (for example) and then allowing the horse to have free access to very low-energy forage the rest of the time (in a yard) is far better than having periods with no access to forage at all, followed by periods with access to forage.

Using a grazing muzzle means that the horse (and this is only our observation, it has not been studied scientifically yet) is forced to eat the part of the plant that is lower in sugar. Pasture plants are generally higher in sugar nearer the base of the plant. A grazing muzzle forces the horse to eat the leaves higher up the plant, and this part of the plant is proportionately lower in sugar and higher in fibre. 

How can you learn more about horses, land management and the environment?

Start by signing up for the free mini-course about Horses, pasture and

grazing www.equiculture.net/equiculture-free-mini-course

 The Free Equiculture Mini-Course

The main reasons against using a grazing muzzle on a horse or pony

A typical horse paddock has 'roughs' and 'lawns'. The roughs are the areas where horses drop manure and where they usually avoid grazing. This is because the roughs contain more parasitic worm larvae – due to the manure (at Equiculture we teach you how to minimise or even eliminate roughs and lawns in a paddock, which vastly reduces worms, increases pasture production etc.).

The lawns are the areas that are usually over-grazed and therefore consist of only short (and stressed) grass plants. An unmuzzled horse can generally eat these short grass plants because they have two sets of sharp incisors (front teeth) that can clip very short grass.

In a paddock with marked roughs and lawns, a horse wearing a grazing muzzle is forced to eat only in the roughs. A horse wearing a grazing muzzle cannot graze in the lawns because the plants there are too short to come up through the base of the muzzle.

Unless the pasture plants are just the right length, the horse cannot graze at all and will become very stressed.

So, remember, if the plants are too short, the horse will not be able to reach the plant leaves through the base of the muzzle. Continuously trying to graze in this way can also cause abnormal wear of the front teeth due to them pushing very hard to get grass to come up through the hole in the base of the muzzle.

If the pasture plants are too tall, the stems will bend over and also make it difficult for the horse to get them up through the base of the muzzle.

So the plants should be upright and just tall enough so that the horse can place the muzzle over them, the plants can come up through the base of the muzzle, and the horse can clip them with their front teeth.

The horse will become very frustrated if the plants are too long or too short. Then, various abnormal behaviours may be seen. Some horses will give up trying to graze and stand around listlessly (these horses are still very stressed though). Some will bash the muzzle on the ground or try to rub it off (which can lead to them getting caught on a fence or gate etc.). They may even try to rub it off on another horse in the herd, leading to them being kicked or bitten.

A grazing muzzle can reduce the horse's ability to smell and 'sift' for different plants with their upper lip while grazing (which is how they usually graze). They must eat whatever they can get up through the base of the muzzle, so they may eat plants they would usually avoid (including poisonous plants if in the pasture).

A horse may get colic if they are not getting enough fibre (due to the acid that builds up in the gut when they do not get enough fibre/forage to buffer it). With a grazing muzzle, there is a real danger that the horse will be unable to consume enough bulk - fibre, to keep the gut working properly. Stress can also cause colic. This is one reason why they should not wear one 24/7 (again, the article suggested at the beginning of this article about what is essential feed for a horse is a must-read www.equiculture.net/blog/what-is-essential-feed-for-a-horse).

Wearing a grazing muzzle will prevent a horse from 'mutual/allo grooming' with other herd members. Also, the muzzle can affect the herd dynamics because it masks some of the facial expressions, and particularly the visual mouth movements, that a horse makes when with other horses, and restricts the horse's ability to defend themself by warning other horses through those facial expressions.

A grazing muzzle can cause rubbing and abrasions, especially in hot weather. Common areas for rubbing include the poll, behind the ears, the top of the horse's muzzle, the lips and the points of the cheekbones.

There are more cons than pros to using a grazing muzzle on a horse – but this does not necessarily mean that you should not use one

It does mean that you need to be aware of what can go wrong and the restrictions they cause to the horse's behaviour, etc. This way, you can decide if and when to use one.

Regular checks that need to be carried out on a horse/pony wearing a grazing muzzle

If a horse is fitted with a grazing muzzle, they need to be checked more frequently than a horse not fitted with one:

  • Check for soil, sand, mud etc., that can build up inside the muzzle.
  • Check that the muzzle is not rubbing the horse's face, particularly in hot weather. Even if it was a perfect fit initially, it might still rub later. You may have to add or remove padding to the straps; you may even have to try a different model/brand.
  • Check that the horse is not being bullied by their herd mates.
  • Check that the horse is grazing and drinking correctly.
  • Check that the horse is not excessively rubbing their head (on solid objects or their herd mates) to get the muzzle off.

Also, if a horse wears a grazing muzzle regularly the teeth should be checked more often for irregular wear.

Restricting grass intake can be important for horses who tend to gain weight or are susceptible to laminitis. However, at Equiculture we tend to not advocate food restriction and concentrate on other ways to manage a horse's grass intake and weight.

But we also recognise and understand that this is not a perfect world. For some people (and their horses), using a grazing muzzle has been a life saver.

We have many people in our Facebook Groups that use them with great success.

How to fit a grazing muzzle to a horse or pony

A badly fitted muzzle can be a welfare issue. The correct fitting and use of a grazing muzzle are essential if it is to be successful. There are plenty of instructional videos on YouTube showing you how to fit one if you decide to use one, but here is a quick guide.

Make sure the grazing muzzle fits comfortably before being left on the horse:

  • The muzzle should be the same size as your horse's headcollar and have a good breakaway safety system.
  • You should be able to fit two fingers underneath the noseband of the grazing muzzle.
  • There should be a one-inch gap between the horse's mouth and the base of the muzzle that the horse eats through. This will ensure that the horse's mouth is not in constant contact with the bottom of the muzzle, for example, when not grazing.
  • The horse must be able to open their mouth comfortably without any restriction.
  • Ensure the straps are not adding pressure to the points (bony bits) on the face.

Training your horse or pony to accept a grazing muzzle

You need to form positive associations with it rather than negative. Eventually, your horse will (hopefully) see the muzzle as an opportunity to eat/graze and socialise with herd mates.

Introduce the grazing muzzle to your horse by holding it near their head and rewarding them with treats or scratches for accepting this. Use things that your horse particularly likes as rewards.

Put the grazing muzzle over the lower part of their face (but not over their ears) with some treats in the base of it and help them to eat the treats by pushing the base of the muzzle upwards towards their mouth. When they accept that, work towards putting the headpiece over the ears, but take it straight off again and reward. Keep repeating this step, very gradually increasing the time before you take it off.

Do not expect your horse to take to the grazing muzzle immediately; some will but some won't. You need to get your horse used to it and associate the muzzle with rewards such as slivers of carrot pushed up through the base.

Gradually, over several sessions, increase the length of time your horse wears the muzzle, continuously feeding him or her through the base. You need to make sure they are relaxed about eating through the hole.

You could even use grass to feed the horse through the hole.

Start training your horse to lower their head by gradually getting them to reach a little bit further down to get the feed.

At some point make any necessary adjustments to the fit. There should be about 2.5cm or 1 inch between their mouth and the base of the muzzle. Your horse should be able to chew with no restriction. But it should not be loose enough for the horse to be able to get it back over their ears.

 Be patient because grazing muzzles can be very difficult for some horses to accept. They restrict many things, not just grass intake so it is a big ask.

Next, reward your horse with a treat and then take them straight out to some pasture.

While you are training the horse, have other horses nearby (for comfort/companionship) but make it so that they cannot approach.

When first attempting to graze your horse may struggle to work out how to do this. You may have to lure their head down with slivers of carrot or grass stems etc.

Spend time doing this and make it as un frustrating as possible for your horse.

When you feel they are ready to start grazing properly with the muzzle on stay with them at first until you are sure they are eating and drinking correctly.

Let the horse graze with their herd mates once you know they are confident about the muzzle.

If you take your time with these initial steps, it will pay off later as your horse will associate the grazing muzzle with good things

Additional important points to remember when using a grazing muzzle or your horse or pony

If you do decide to use a grazing muzzle on your horse or pony:

  • Make sure the grazing muzzle has a breakaway section so that if the horse gets caught up and panics, it will break away.
  • You may have to start with a larger holed version and reduce the size of the hole over time.
  • Remember a grazing muzzle is a compromise. Aim to work towards managing without it in future, if possible.
  • Be aware of the grass length. Learn to assess grass length on a daily basis.
  • Check your field or turnout area, ensuring all fencing is safe and there is nothing your horse could catch the muzzle on.
  • Remember that your horse cannot groom themself or mutually groom their herd mates. Make sure you give the horse time each day without the grazing muzzle to do this. This could be in an enclosed (grass-free) holding yard (loafing area).
  • When bringing the horse in from pasture, always take the muzzle off immediately.

Hopefully, this video and article have given you some things to think about and will help you and your horses.

Learn how to manage your land and horses better in a way that is good for biodiversity, the wider environment, soil health, horse health, their welfare, etc. 

How can you learn more about horses, land management and the environment?

Start by signing up for the free mini-course about Horses, pasture and

grazing www.equiculture.net/equiculture-free-mini-course

 The Free Equiculture Mini-Course