BY DEBORAH JANE NICHOLAS
There appear to be various contraptions readily available to buy these days in which it seems evident that the designer of the product either had no love for horses, or was ignorant of their welfare. Moreover it appears the buyer of such contraptions willingly shares the same mindset of the manufacturer. There are a few things that cause me to grimace when I see a horse from afar. One is seeing a horse wearing a rug on a warm day, or just because it’s raining. The other is seeing a horse wearing a grazing muzzle.
The design of the muzzle would lead one to believe that only small sections of grass can poke through, allowing the horse to snip off just the delicate ends from blades of grass. If used carefully by the animal then it should be entirely possible to graze.
Sounds good so far.
All the horse needs to do is not press down fully to ground level, so as not to flatten the grass, but stop approximately 5 cm from the root base. If done slowly, and with a good amount of dexterity and precision, several blades of grass should pass through the opening. In theory yes, but obviously this demonstration was performed by the human hands of a designer who no doubt was trying to impress his potential investors.
Do these potential investors have horse knowledge?
Those that think a horse knows to stop 5 cm from the ground and blindly negotiate the gaps of the muzzle over several pieces of grass are misinformed. The position of the horse’s eyes are not located in such a position as to be able to see what is directly under its lips. Throw a mint on the floor and observe what happens. The horse knows the general location at first from sight, but when he lowers his head he is going by memory only. To find the mint he will now use smell, and his muzzle and whiskers to feel around for it. Yet while at pasture, the use of the lips and whiskers are rendered near on useless considering the grazing muzzle surrounds the mouth area.
Furthermore horses do not snip off delicate blades of grass habitually, because they would die of starvation. These are big animals that need to eat in bulk spread out over 24 hours. Horses are very capable of using a fair amount of dexterity while picking through thorny bushes for herbs or fruit. But for the most part, they graze in a succession of 2 or 3 chomps before chewing. Instinct alone will cause them to lift their head to check for predators. Therefore to maximise feeding efficiency while remaining alert, they chew while surveying the environment. Simply put, they grab what they can, then check for lions.
Horses have not evolved to have the dexterity to negotiate the gaps in a plastic or nylon muzzle, only the human inventor that evolved to have fingers can manage such a task. A horse in this situation is more likely to press harder on the ground in an attempt to find grass, rather than calculate the angle, distance and force needed to successfully nip off a few blades of grass. While it’s entirely plausible that adaptation can occur in animals, over many generations, it is highly unlikely a horse will pass down knowledge of muzzles to its foal, and all of its future generations. To assume all horses will adapt, happily and efficiently, to using muzzles is bordering on the ridiculous.
Every owner that has used one must be aware of the disgusting mess the contraption contains after every single use. Both saliva, and moisture from the grass build up on the inside of the muzzle. Grass that has not been swallowed mixes with all the extra moisture and forms a pulp. This green pulp clogs up the holes of the muzzle and rubs against the horse’s nose, lips and chin and also impedes the ability to breath comfortably. Horses by their very nature expel vegetation they find unpalatable, and this occurs often. They also shake off the parts they do not wish to eat, such as soil that clings to roots.
Anything discarded has the potential not to drop through the holes to the ground. As the horse attempts to breathe normally, moisture and detritus can be drawn into the nasal passages. If that green, slimy detritus-filled mash isn’t bad enough now, just imagine what will happen when the horse visits the water trough.
There is absolutely no way that a muzzle rubbing against the delicate skin of the face will not cause discomfort, or unnatural pressure on the teeth as the horse bears down harder on the ground. Damage and injuries that will no doubt be susceptible to infection considering the amount of bacteria that is being smeared onto broken compromised skin. Furthermore while everyone is aware of the dangers of leaving head collars on when in pasture, for some reason they assume the straps of a muzzle must be safe. Even if the straps are engineered to safely snap, left unsupervised the now hungry horse is likely to gorge on the grass.
Stopping a herbivorous prey animal from grazing and foraging is without a doubt very, very cruel. It can’t be stressed enough, those that use muzzles are tampering with the mental stability of the animal. The animal must be aware on some level it is not meeting its own physical needs. Horses are big on showing strength and not appearing weak. Imagine the distress a horse must feel while it’s simultaneously staying alert for danger and feeling hunger, breathing through something that feels like a sodden stinking flannel while all the time feeling pain from a lump of plastic or nylon rubbing against his face. Adding to that mental cruelty is then putting a horse in a field full of fresh lush grass…then impeding its ability to consume what visually must be the human equivalent of a banquet.
Research on this topic advises that horses should not be left unsupervised when wearing a muzzle, and that they should only be left on for short periods. In all of these case studies however there were individual horses that had to be removed from the study due to behavioural changes that indicated stress.
Horses do not need much grass to feel mentally secure, it’s more of a case that we inhibit their ability to roam to pastures new, and this in particular is what causes mental stress. Therefore using a starvation paddock, or employing the method of strip grazing is still not ideal, but it could suffice. If an owner has somehow allowed a working animal to gain an excess of weight, or is attempting to avoid other serious ailments, they could use a starvation paddock and add hay. Hay added in sections in various places within the paddock would meet the needs of the horse in terms of foraging while encouraging movement. This is obviously far better than obstructing air ways and causing both physical and mental discomfort.
Everyone’s circumstances, and the individual needs of the horse, are different, understandably. But whether taking measures to avoid a multitude of conditions such as colic or even laminitis, then more intelligent, effective methods must be employed rather than placing such a contraption on the horse’s head. The best place for a grazing muzzle, ideally, is in a bin.