Winter Care for Your Horse

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During the winter months, horse owners many times neglect to carefully observe their animals. Most horses are turned out to pasture and only seen in the dark at feeding time. In the summer months, it is easy to provide extensive care for the horse, when riding every day and want to make certain the horse is fit and in good health.

One of the  worst things for a horse during the winter months is ice; most importantly, the ice that covers the watering trough or water bucket. Water for the horse during cold weather is very  often overlooked. The water may freeze up making it inaccessible to the horse. Mature horses need about 10 gallons of water a day. To keep the horse healthy during freezing weather owners should make sure an ample supply of fresh water is always available. Excessively cold water will decrease the horses’ consumption of water. Ideally, water should be maintained at a temperature between 40-55oF. When the horse drinks less water, feed intake will decrease. A reduction in feed intake results in less energy being available to maintain body temperature and body weight during the cold months. Reduced feed and water intake could lead to colic and an impacted intestinal tract in the horse.

To  prevent water consumption problems in the winter, water should be as accessible to the horse as possible. Heated waterers are one way to assure your horse an ample supply of drinking water. If electric water heaters are used, the water tank should be checked every day to insure that the heater is not shorting out and shocking the horse. An electric shock could prevent the horse from drinking.

The horse has two natural defenses against cold, a long hair coat and a layer of fat beneath the skin. Both provide an excellent means of insulation against the cold. The long winter hair coat serves as insulation by reducing the loss of body heat and provides the first line of defense against the cold. Insulating value is lost when the horse becomes wet and/or is covered with mud. This is why it is important to provide a dry sheltered area in cold wet weather and provide regular grooming. In wet weather, be alert for rain scald and other skin problems. If unchecked, rain scald  can result in hair loss and skin irritation . It is very important to keep the horse from losing its hair coat and body weight, which can result in an energy deficient state (the horse must be properly fed).

Most nutritional needs of the horse do not change during the winter season. Vitamin, mineral and protein requirements depend on the horse’s age and physiological  condition and not on the time of year. The horse should be fed according to body condition. Thin horses should be fed some supplemental grain in addition to good quality hay to assure enough energy to produce warmth, while a fat horse will require little or no increase from their fall diet. Most mature horses that are idle and in good flesh can survive the winter quite well on good quality hay and ample clean water.

Horses will generally consume 1 to 1 ½ pounds of hay per 100 pounds of body weight and if needed ½ to 1½ pounds of grain per 100 lbs of body weight. If a horse is not maintaining body condition or is performing some work, grain should be added to the diet. Roughage is digested in the cecum and colon by bacterial fermentation and a great deal of heat is produced in this process. If you must supplement your hay with grain, one of the safest of grains to feed is oats. However, corn contains twice as much energy as an equal volume of oats therefore a small amount of corn added to the diet will increase the energy supply. Contrary to popular belief, corn does not produce heat. It produces energy that can later be converted to heat; it is the digestion of the hay that quickly produces the heat. However, for the thin horse, corn will provide the energy needed to keep the horse in good body condition and provide the energy needed for work. Cold weather stresses the horse to  generate enough heat to maintain  body temperature during the coldest of weather. A horse’s nutritive needs will be higher when it is 10 degrees Fahrenheit, than it will be when the temperatures are around 50 degrees.

Avoid overfeeding. Overfeeding induces  weight gain during the winter, which can  lead to laminitis and other health problems in the spring.

Vitamin and mineral requirements are a year-round concern. All horses should have access to trace mineralized salt to meet their electrolyte and trace mineral needs. Adequate levels of vitamins are present in sufficient amounts in good quality horse feed, especially in well-preserved green hay. However, if the hay appears brown, weathered and the hay quality is questionable, additional vitamin supplementation may be needed. A commercial vitamin mineral supplement can be used to provide what is missing from the hay.

While horses need shelter from cold winds, rain and snow; it is not necessary to keep them in a closed barn throughout the winter. Horses kept outdoors in the winter with access to a run-in shed, that opens away from the normal wind patterns, will generally have fewer respiratory disease problems than horses kept in poorly ventilated, heated barns. With a three-sided shed, the horse can take shelter during a rain or snowstorm and its insulating hair remains dry and fluffed. When the storm is over, the horse can emerge and be comfortable even as temperatures drop below freezing. Horses maintained in an enclosed barn should be exercised regularly, to maintain muscling and health.

Show horses with hair coats that are artificially short should not be turned outside in bitter winter cold without protection of a blanket or windbreak. If you have a show horse that is housed indoors during winter, the barn should be adequately ventilated  to reduce the risk of respiratory disease. Proper ventilation eliminates excess moisture and condensation buildup. Care should be taken to also prevent a direct drafts on the horse; as this could cause additional  stress. Even in cold weather horses frequently prefer to be outdoors. The horse, when given the opportunity, will acclimate to cold temperatures without much difficulty.

One important aspect of care that often is neglected is hoof care. Even when not  regularly riding the horse, the hooves are still growing. During winter months, the horse is traveling on uneven, frozen ground that can crack and break hooves. Have the shoes removed and the hooves trimmed before turning the horse out for winter, and have the feet trimmed on a regular basis. This insures that when spring arrives, the horse will have sound hooves that will be capable of holding a shoe. Also, be on the alert for the presence of parasites.

The important thing is-do not just turn horses out and forget about them. Every day at every feeding, horses should receive at least a visual examination, preferably a more thorough check to insure that any problems are left unchecked.