Each spring, one should go through the ritual of preparing pastures, horses and equipment for the prospect of riding and enjoyment during warmer weather. The first job to tackle is checking the perimeter fenceline of the pastures. In fall, horses may be confined to a smaller paddock (or what horsemen call a sacrifice area) to prevent destruction of pasture forages during periods of unstable footing caused by thawing and freezing. This keeps pastures from being destroyed by horses chopping up the sod while trying to find that last tasty green morsel that might survive the non-growing season.
If electric fencing is utilized, one often "un-hooks" the electric fencing in the fall to reduce maintenance and increase abilities within the sacrifice areas. During hunting season, the deer are constantly running through and breaking the fence wire and winter storms bring down trees and branches that cause the fence to not work properly. Therefore, in the spring, before one can "re-hook" up the electricity to the fencing, it will require walking the line and checking the fence posts for stability, removing any branches or fallen trees, and repairing any breaks in the wire. About one week later, repeat the process so that deer and other wildlife have time to re-learn about the fence perimeters. Other types of fencing also require maintenance and should be checked accordingly.
Often, horses are not returned to grazing in pastures until May 1 (depending upon your growing season). This enables the pasture grasses a chance to get a firm growth start and also a time for horses to acclimate to a diet of rich grass feed. All winter long in the sacrifice area, the horses have been eating dried forage, hay and grain supplements. The horse's digestive system needs to be slowly introduced to this new rich grass feed. During the month of April, limit the time the horses have eating grass until they can safely graze for longer periods of time. One can begin by allowing the horses ten or fifteen minutes of hand grazing for a few days. The controlled grazing is increased by five to fifteen minute increments for the next two weeks. By the second week of April, one can turn the horses out for free grazing for about one hour at a time. Each day, increase that time by increments of fifteen minutes or so. Then by the beginning of May, horses' digestive systems will be acclimated to at least four or five hour periods of grazing time. The limited grazing in April also allows the forages to establish without constant stress. Allowing the forage this "jump-start" will contribute to providing a more established and productive pasture in the following summer months.
Spring is also the time for many to have the annual veterinary visit for inoculations and yearly examination. This may includes the Coggins testing that is often required for participation in horse show and other horse events. It is recommended to vaccinate/inoculate horses for Tetanus, Equine Encephalomyelitis (Eastern & Western), West Nile Virus, and Rabies. There are other "risk-based" inoculations available, such as Influenza, Rhinopneumonitis, Potomac Horse Fever and Strangles, and every horse owner needs to consult with their veterinarian and decide what inoculations are best and needed for their horse and in their region. For more information on spring vaccinations, read Spring Vaccines for Your Horse.
With warmer days during spring and summer, it is more likely that a daily search of the horse will find ticks attached and feeding on the host horse. Ticks are prevalent in most areas and tend to be more abundant in fall and spring months when they are searching for a host. Ticks can be found year round, but often are more common in warmer weather. Checking and/or brushing the coat of the horse will assist in quicker shedding and will assist in finding other types of parasitic or skin conditions.
Farrier visits should be year round every six to eight weeks. Often horses that are heavily ridden are shod. When they are not ridden as much in the winter, owners tend to remove the shoes and let the horses go barefoot. With the prospect of resuming riding in the spring, shoes will need to be placed back on the horse. Schedule a visit from your farrier to enable him ample time to fit your horse's needs into his schedule. Remember that everyone else in the spring will also want to retain the farrier for the same purpose!
Some final jobs include spring barn cleaning and checking of equipment. Sweep out hay waste that has collected during the winter; remove cobwebs, dead insects, dirt and dust. Check barn walls for repairs. Spring is a good time to clean and condition the saddle and bridles checking for weak leather, buckles and snaps and cleansing of saddle pads, horse blankets and any other equipment that could use a good scrubbing.
Written by Helene McKernan, Retired Penn State Extension Educator