Although preparing for winter is not the most creative topic, I feel it is a very important one. The increased stresses of cold weather can wreak havoc on a horse that does not have proper winter preparation and care.
Do I have to put a blanket on my pastured horses in the winter?
I do not recommend blanketing pastured horses. Normal, healthy horses that have plenty of quality hay, normal hair coats, and someplace to get out of the wind maintain body heat with no problem and do not need extra help from a blanket. However, clipped horses, thin, debilitated horses, geriatric horses, or horses with no wind break may benefit from the use of appropriate winter blankets. I favor providing pasture horses with a clean, well bedded loafing shed. This setup gives a horse a dry place to lie down and get out of a cold, wet wind allowing them to conserve heat and energy when necessary. If you do choose to put a blanket on your horse, make sure it is kept as clean as possible. Try to remove any mud that has accumulated on the blanket on a regular basis. This cleaning will help reduce the chance of any skin irritation. Blanketing a horse gives the horse owner peace of mind, but in most instances it is not necessary.
Should I change my feeding program in the winter?
During the winter it is important to feed lots of good quality hay. Good quality hay is green, has a medium sized stem, and contains no dust or mold. Horses have evolved eating grass, thus I recommend grass hay as the main source of forage. However, hard keepers, geriatric horses, and thoroughbreds, for instance, maintain body weight better if a major portion of their forage is alfalfa. Consult your veterinarian to determine what type of hay ration will best suit your horse.
Horses are hind-gut forage fermenters. The hay they eat is primarily digested in the large colon by fermentation of the gut’s microflora. With the aid of the microorganisms in the hind gut, the digestible fiber in the hay forms volatile fatty acids. These volatile fatty acids have tremendous energy and heat value. It is important to note that the energy and heat produced by feeding quality hay is much greater than that produced by feeding grain (starch) and cost less as well. A couple quarts of grain is fine and makes a nice treat, but when the wind picks up and the sleet/snow is coming down, increase your horse’s hay ration, not the grain ration.
Adequate water intake is also very important during the winter. See next question and answer..
Is it really necessary to heat my horse’s water? Won’t horses drink cold water?
Horses will drink really cold water (32-34 degrees F), however, studies have shown that they will drink 40% more water if the water is heated. Research done at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine found that increasing the water consumption of your horse may reduce his chances of developing an impaction colic. For these reasons, I strongly recommend that your horse’s water be heated. The water may be heated continually using a water heater (available at feed stores) or heated twice daily by manually filling water buckets with hot water (115-120 degrees F). I use continuous heaters in my water tanks and though they can be an expensive addition, their use reduces my chance of expensive colic treatment or surgery.
Do geriatric horses have special needs in the winter?
Geriatric horses have special needs regardless of the season. However, winter is especially difficult for aged horses. Your veterinarian should perform a thorough dental exam making sure your old horse does not have mouth pain caused by loose teeth, sharp teeth, or periodontal disease. Normal jaw movement is also important so the dental exam should include checking the mouth for long teeth or poor molar occlusion that does not allow normal jaw movement. By eliminating dental problems, you ensure that your geriatric horse can eat properly and maintain body weight during the winter. Aged horses that have few teeth but no mouth pain do well on the numerous complete rations available for them, such as Equine Senior or Equine Prime Time.
Keep old friends out of the wind. A dry stable at night works well, as does a clean, well bedded loafing shed. Old horses have difficulty getting their stiff arthritic legs working after lying on the cold, wet ground at night. You might also consider using a winter blanket if you cannot stable the horse at night.
I feel it is very important to evaluate your geriatric horse’s condition prior to the onset of winter. Advances in veterinary medicine allow us to keep older horses healthy and comfortable well into their 20’s. However, thin and debilitated aged horses may struggle with survival during the winter. You will do your horse a kind service if you thoroughly evaluate your horse’s ability to handle winter conditions. The last thing you want to do is find your old friend down on the frozen ground unable to rise due to weakness and hypothermia. Talk to your veterinarian about your old horse’s condition. Careful consideration by both of you can eliminate unnecessary suffering for your horse.
Is it safe to ride my horse in cold weather?
Safe riding in winter depends entirely on the footing. Determine where you are planning to ride in the winter, then ask your farrier about appropriate shoeing. Riding in my opinion is not a good idea unless you have access to an indoor arena. However, horses in general do much better in cold conditions than people do. So believe me, if you can handle the cold weather your horse will have little trouble with it. Just make sure that you provide ample time for warm-up and cool down. Just as people need a little extra time to stretch prior to a cold morning run, horses also need extra time to get going in the cold. Taking an extra 10-15 minutes to warm-up can reduce the chance of muscle tears, sprains, strains, and other soft tissue damage that can result from exercising cold muscles.
Should I keep my horse warm by closing up the barn at night?
A word about ventilation- horses need lots of it! Closing up the barn at night is a good way to promote respiratory disease in horses. You do need to eliminate any excessive drafts throughout the barn. Appropriate ventilation at the attachment of the roof to the walls of the barn seems to work well. Ceiling fans and fans that draw air from the southside of the barn and exhaust through the northside of the barn in winter and vice versa in the summer are ideal. Hay dust, mold spores, shavings, and ammonia are all irritating and unwelcome to the equine respiratory system. It will benefit you and your horse to minimize their presence by allowing adequate ventilation in the barn. This may not make for the most comfortable conditions for you as it will be colder, but your horse will thank you for the fresh, clean air.
As always, if you have any concerns about making sure your horse is prepared for the harshness of winter, call your veterinarian. Also, if you have any topics you would like to see covered in Vet Corner, please let us know. We want to make sure you find these articles useful and educational.