Winterizing Your HorseThe days are shortening, the air has a reminiscent chill. The ease of summertime horse care has ceded ground to the inevitable demands of wintertime horsekeeping.
Does this mean a couple of dreary months ahead? Maybe, but on the positive side, the winter months that are often seen as inhospitable and bitter by some are relished by others, who enjoy the snap in the air and the chance to ride out among the muted palette of the countryside – and, yes, to be pleasantly fly-free! The winter season can even be the time to turn horses away for the coldest months and take a respite to recharge for the active spring, summer, and fall riding seasons.
So, if you’re not one of the legions who take their horses south for the show circuit, and if you will be staying put this winter, enjoy it the most by making your horses, pastures and barns worry-free. Here are the three most important things you need to know to ensure wintertime comfort for your horses:
KEEP THEM WARM…… by feeding them. Horses generate a large amount of internal heat via their digestive process, which allows them to weather successfully the winter cold, so providing each equine with good-quality hay or forage at all times during the cold months is a must. This can’t be emphasized enough, so plan to provide hay so that no horse is ever voluntarily without.
If your horses routinely roam pastures with ample forage, you will need to be alert to how well they are maintaining their weight to decide whether or not to supplement their forage with hay or additional concentrate (grain). Stabled horses need that hay, too. The small space of the stall blocks their ability to move about at will and to use that movement to keep up body heat.
Keep in mind that older and/or arthritic horses may not be as limber in the winter and may struggle over frozen, pocked ground to get to extra pasture or to their water supply – they will indeed need forage provided (and water re-located within reach) if they can’t join pasture mates in daily trips to richer grazing.
KEEP THEM HYDRATED…… by keeping that running water running, and keeping your drinking water de-iced. This is of supreme importance. Horses deprived of water are colic emergencies waiting to happen. Automatic waterers (in stalls) are a great way to provide drinking water at a comfortable temperature year-round and are highly functional in the cold weather. Heated water buckets and for out-of-doors, stock-tank heaters, are also successful, practical approaches. However, for these latter items, address their installation in the warm weather, as they usually require electrical outlets to function.
Be alert to any ice slicks that may crop up around a water tank, which is also true for any highly traveled areas in the pasture or paddock.
KEEP THEM SHELTERED…… from the wind, from a storm, or from any inclement weather. “Wind chill” is a phrase most used in wintertime, and for good reason. A breeze in winter can cool quickly and perilously, so for horses housed out-of-doors, a three-sided shelter (usually man-made) that will accommodate all members of the herd safely must be provided.
So, if you are able easily to ‘answer’ the above three areas, here are a few more things to think about before putting your feet up in front of that warm fire:
*TO “B” OR NOT TO “B”
Shakespeare had it easy. The blanketing dilemma, though more of a debate than a war, needs to be thought through by each horse owner, with such variables as body clipping, exercise plans, or competition taken into consideration. Many swear that their (unclipped) horses have never needed a blanket; others feel that horses need an extra layer between them and a harsh northerly wind or a driving rain, or just the general chill of winter found in every stable.
Blankets are roughly divided between stable blankets — found in various weights and made with lighter outer materials -- and turn-out blankets constructed with tough outer layer designed to stand up against contact with rocks, branches and other horses, and which range from the single-layer turn-out sheet to those lined with light-, medium-, and heavy-weight fill. Turn-out blankets are also water-proofed, but stay alert to their varying efficacy in the face of a soaking winter storm.
Even if you choose not to blanket in wintertime, it may be worthwhile purchasing a turnout sheet or medium-weight turnout blanket for an emergency situation, such as an ill horse in need of care or one that has severely badly chilled. As well, if your horses are blanketed, be on the alert for blanket rubs. Also, plan to remove them and check their body weight at least once a week.
To check fit: once the blanket is buckled and in place on your horse, insert your hand vertically at the withers. You should have one hand’s width (pinky to forefinger) of clearance; the front buckles should close at or, ideally, above the point of the shoulder, not hang below; the blanket should reach to the middle of the forearm (can be shorter on stable blankets); and it should be long enough to reach to the rear edges of his rump nearly to his tail, both from the top of his rump and to around the sides. The belly surcingles are to be adjusted so that one is loose enough to accommodate one’s fist and the other to accommodate two or more fists. Adjust leg straps so that they do not press against the inner leg, but are not so loose that they can catch on the point of the hock. Crossing (interlacing) them is optional, but many horseowners do this in order to keep the straps from binding against the inner leg.
*SHOE SAVVY Not too long ago, many, if not most, horsemen turned their horses away for the winter – often after the fox-hunting season – and pulled shoes as part of the respite. With year-round riding often the norm, not as many people participate in this cold-weather ritual, but should you take this old timers’ route or keep up your training schedule, shoeing usually will need to be supplemented to both repel snow build-up in the hooves as well as provide traction over icy footing. Full pop-out pads or rim pads (which follow the outline of the shoe and do not cover the entire sole) are an excellent way to stymie the annoying build-up of snow in your horse’s hooves. For traction, small caulks or borium -- small drops of metal fused to the horse shoe -- are functional and long-lasting. Speak with your farrier about the best types of pads and traction. (For horses living or turned out in a herd, traction devices can pose a safety issues. Discuss this, too, with your farrier).
Horses that are barefoot need no additional traction for winter’s ice and snow.
*REVIEW YOUR BARN
For those who keep their horses outside in all seasons, review your barn for emergency situations. Bring indoors any medications you use on a regular basis so that injectables, pastes and other gels don’t freeze. Ensure that the barn will be efficient and safe to use in the worse of weather, should you find you need or want to shelter your horses in the face of a terrible winter storm, or you need to treat an injured or sick horse. You’ll do yourself no favors if there is no lighting or access to electricity to heat water to clean or treat wounds or to house a horse comfortably who must be stall-rested. This isn’t solely a wintertime concern – this applies in all seasons – but the extra demands brought on by bitter cold and dark only heighten the struggle to provide veterinary care or a safe environment for your equine charges.
Movement aids in keeping horses warm in cold temperatures. If your pasture is restricted by ice or poor footing, or if your arthritic horse(s) is reluctant to move about, address this by imposing gentle light exercise (on good footing), such as handwalking, sanding icy areas, or in the worse weather, utilizing your rings (indoor or out) if the footing is appropriate as a place for your horses to move about more freely.
The good news is that horses are also especially well-suited to cold weather. Research has indicated that horses do not expend energy to remain warm until the ambient temperature has reached the teens. But, how to determine if your horse is sufficiently warm? Grasp the base of one of his ears, and make contact with the skin. It should feel warm. If not, it’s time to blanket and/or relocate him out of the cold air and wind and into a sheltered environment and ensure that he has sufficient hay.
Although not a common sight among those who are attentive to their equine charges, a horse that has taken on a ‘standing on a circus drum’ stance – that is, with head and neck well-lowered and with its four hooves close to each other – is one that is extremely chilled. He needs to be attended to immediately. Cover with a dry, warming blanket, offer hay and warmed water if he hasn’t had it already, and curry him to encourage circulation. Don’t hesitate to contact your vet to alert him to this situation.
Consider using a joint supplement for older horses to help keep up their comfort level and encourage movement throughout the winter months. Be sure to add any such supplements to their diet prior to the onset of cold weather, so that they can reach maximum effect by the time winter arrives.
It is nearly inevitable that horses drink less water in the cold weather, but water tubs and buckets equipped with heaters should do the trick in providing water. If you would like to supplement intake, consider providing a warm, wet feed once or twice a day.
Consider letting your horse gain a few extra pounds in the later summer. A layer of fat fends off winter’s chill and provides your horse extra energy without taxing his system to keep him warm when the nights lengthen and the days retain their chill.
Wipe Crisco or any sort of grease (including WD-40) on the soles of hooves if you find that snow is building up in your horse’s hooves in spite of your shoeing efforts. To remove a snow ball, keep a screw driver and hammer in the barn. Either gently chip away or pry out the ball. If all else is failing, dribble hot water over the ball to facilitate its removal – then towel-wipe the bottom of the hoof to avoid any icy build-up.
Drying a wet horse in cold weather is a taxing job. Thatching is a method by which hay or straw is placed up under a cooler or blanket over the wet area to capture the horse’s natural heat and provide a drying environment. The “thatch” can be left in place indefinitely; if possible, check it periodically and replace any damp thatch with dry. Otherwise, a damp horse after exercise should be covered first with an Irish knit or scrim and then a wool or polar-fleece cooler should be layered on top. Stay alert to the coolers’ accumulating damp and swap out coolers as needed.
Body clipping is an effective way to keep a horse in work in the cold weather but not be burdened with a constantly wet coat. There are myriad clips that allow warmth as well as ‘drying’ capacity, so it’s worth studying all the interesting body clips before making a decision.
For those of you who stable your horses and are cleaning stalls each day, old bedding can be a way to cushion frozen, pocked ground; a handy way to treat icy areas (test this on a small patch of ice to determine feasibility before ‘sanding’ any larger area) and an excellent source of building insulation or to cut down icy drafts blowing in along the foundation of your barn. (It means a spring clean-up, though.)
Winter may delight or dismay, but with these preparations in place, the workload and worry will be greatly lessened. We hope you’ll enjoy those fun canters in the sparkling snowfall or even a moonlit sleigh ride. These will make for precious memories!
Disclaimer: This article is not a substitute for qualified veterinary advice and care. Consult your veterinarian on this and any equine health care issue.
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