Sunday, April 4, 2010

Horse care for set sitters, part 2


Once you’ve accepting a pet sitting assignment caring for horses, you need to know the basics of feeding each particular animal, how to identify signs of illness, and what to do if a horse escapes.

Feeding basics for horses. Almost every horse gets hay twice a day. In a perfect world they would eat all day long. They have small stomachs and can’t digest a big meal, so they graze. Your client will tell you what kind of hay and how much to feed. Hay separates from the bale in “flakes” and a good rule of thumb is one flake per meal. A very large horse may get two. Some owners have a scale in their barn, and I weigh the hay to get the right amount.

There are many types of hay: bermuda, alfalfa, oat, timothy, orchard grass, and many more. If the owner feeds two different types of hay, be sure you understand which is which. Some hays are too high in protein for a particular horse. Other hay may be just for the horse to have something to munch on throughout the day. Feeding the wrong hay could make him sick.

Watch for mold in the hay. If it is blackened or powdery, pull that part out and don’t feed it.  You might need to switch to another bale.

Pellets or bagged horse feed. Hay can also be compressed into pellets. Some owners will soak the pellets in water before feeding. You may be asked to feed a scoop of senior feed, supplemental grain, or even a bran mash (soaked bran). Get clear instructions, and be careful not to overfeed.

LOCK UP THE FOOD. If a horse can open a door, he will, and they are very good at it. Be sure you latch every gate and doorway completely. If a horse gets in and eats several pounds of grain, call the vet immediately. This is an emergency.

Treats. If the owner allows you to feed treats, hold your hand open with the palm flat, and the horse will use his lips to pick up the treat. Some common goodies are peppermints, carrots and apples. An apple is the perfect size and shape to get stuck in a horse’s throat so cut it in two or three pieces or make him take bite out of it rather than letting him take it whole. Most horses know how to do this already.

How to identify a sick horse. You may arrive and find horses lying down out in the pasture. They are not necessarily sick, though they sure look like it. Usually they will hop up as soon as they hear you.

The most common emergency is colic. A horse that eats too much fresh grass or high protein feed will get gas colic. This can usually be successfully treated. 

Some horses get impaction colic, where sand in their gut gradually forms a stone until suddenly one day the intestinal tract is blocked. Surgery is the only hope to cure this horse.

Signs of either type of colic are similar. The horse will be uncomfortable, looking and biting at his sides and maybe kicking a little. He may stand with his head to the ground and his mouth open, like he’s trying to belch. As the pain gets worse he will lie down and roll.

What to do: Call the owner and veterinarian. While you wait, walk the horse, which may help get his bowels moving. Watch to see if he passes manure. This is critical, and is a very good sign. Observe whether it is soft and runny or solid and normal. The vet will want to know.

If the horse tries to roll, urge him to get up and walk. You’ll see him pause and buckle his front legs, maybe paw the ground first. Interrupt him before he goes down and keep him moving.

Don’t feed him any food or water. If it is gas colic, a simple shot of banamine may be all that the vet needs to do. The vet may also hydrate the horse with an IV or put oil down into his stomach to get things moving. You may be in for a long night.

If a horse escapes. This is no fun, but I have been lucky. It only happened once, and the horse just went over to the nearest stall and stood outside of it next to her buddy. May you be so fortunate.

Horses will usually try to find another horse if they get out when you aren’t there. Or they will stop at the nearest green, juicy grass (watch him for signs of colic if this happens). Hit the street with your halter and lead rope and talk to the neighbors. You may want to walk one of the other household’s horses with you, because they will call out to each other. Once you find him (really, they don’t usually go far) be ready with some cookies, apples, carrots or a little grain in a bucket, and you will catch him in no time. Food is magic.

If a horse gets away from you and bolts, he will usually go a couple hundred feet and stop. Use the same methods mentioned above to catch him. Food usually works. If he starts to take off again as you get near, stop and stand sideways instead of full front, so you won’t appear threatening, and don’t make eye contact (this also works with dogs). You could even kneel on the ground. Gradually move closer. If he drops his head and starts to lick and chew with his mouth, he is starting to relax. A high-headed horse is a scared horse. Remember to watch his ears for a hint as to what he is paying attention to (hopefully, you).

I hope this and my last article, about safety around horses, have been helpful to you. Contact me if you have questions about horse care! 


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