Horses in the wild are well suited to surviving harsh winter conditions. Our domesticated horses do not have the same skills as their wild brethren. Winter survival is one of the many things for which our equine companions rely on us.
Before winter arrives take a look around your pasture and barn. Make necessary repairs now, before the icy winds blow. Make sure that your fence is not only intact, but that it will remain visible in a deep snow. Horses have been known to walk over or entangle themselves in fences that are buried in drifts of snow.
Most horses do not require blanketing through the winter as their winter coats provide suitable warmth. In fact, blanketing early in the winter can cause your horse to grow a coat not thick enough to keep him warm. Blanketing over his full winter coat can cause him to sweat, which can lead to a chill in freezing temperatures.
Fall is an excellent time to make sure your horse’s dental health is up to snuff.
Horses often have a more difficult time keeping weight on during cold months, and teeth that hurt or that don’t grind properly can contribute to that weight loss. Have your horse’s teeth checked and floated if needed.
Your horse’s winter coat can hide weight loss and injuries. Carefully inspect your horse every one to two days to ensure he is maintaining his weight and has suffered no injury that needs attention.
During cold months you can design a feeding program that will help to keep your horse toasty warm. While sweet feeds and grains are full of calories, the fermentation that results from hay in your horse’s gut will increase his body temperature much more efficiently. Make sure your horse has access to hay at all times.
Snow does not provide adequate water for your horse. This would be similar to you trying to get all the fluids you need by simply eating ice. Many colics occur in winter months due to a lack of access to fresh water. Make sure that heated tanks are in good working order, and if you do not have a heated water source, plan to break the ice on the surface of your horse’s water two to three times daily. At least once a day offer your horse water you have warmed to tepid.
If your horse is to remain shod all winter, add pads to his feet. Pads will prevent ice from balling up within his feet. These ice balls may cause your horse to become unsteady and slip and fall on frozen ground. (A horse on ice skates is no fun!)
Just because it is winter doesn’t mean you cannot ride your horse. Winter riding can be great fun, and your horse will appreciate the diversion. There are a couple of things to keep in mind as you plan your winter rides. Over-exertion in cold air can lead to irritation of his airway. Keep your workouts to a moderate level. Sweating will quickly make your horse too cold and uncomfortable. Moderate work will prevent sweating, but if your horse is prone to breaking a sweat under his tack, clipping his saddle area may help. Keep in mind this will require blanketing.
Paying attention to a few simple details can make winter another enjoyable season in which to enjoy your partnership with your horse.
– Janelle D. Tirrell, DVM