Caring for Horses in Winter (The Four Best Tips)
Caring for Horses in Winter can be hard, in many areas, its extreme temperatures and violent weather can pose a significant problem for our equine friends. Even in milder climates, winter presents the horse owner with a completely different set of challenges than summer does. Read on for some tips on how to keep your horse happy and well through the chilly winter months.
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It goes without saying that winter temperatures are far colder than in summer – dropping well below freezing in many climates. Sometimes, this can also be accompanied by rain and snow. All of these factors will make it more difficult for your horse to maintain his body temperature, which can lead to loss of condition, fatigue, decreased performance, tying up, and vulnerability to diseases. The horse’s environment also changes; grazing may be completely depleted or covered with snow, and his water will also be too cold to drink or even frozen over completely.
Poor management of the horse in winter can lead to diseases like azoturia, colic, and pneumonia. Here’s how to prevent these issues from occurring.
Four Tips for Winter Horse Care
Tip 1. Watch your water
Water is the most essential nutrient in the equine diet. Horses can go for weeks without eating, but without drinking water, your horse would die in a couple of days. It may seem counter-intuitive, but horses actually need more water made available to them in winter than in summer. Even though lots of fluids are lost to sweat in summer, succulent green grazing provides a significant amount of water – as much as 80% on fresh grazing. By contrast, the dry hay and concentrates your horse consumes in winter have less than one-fifth of that water percentage. Not only does the horse thus to drink more water to maintain his body, but he also needs extra water in his stomach to help all that dry matter move through.
Of course, none of us are going to let our precious horses stand around without water, but cold winter nights can make their water inaccessible to them. Many horses won’t drink water that’s icy cold to the taste. Other times, their buckets or troughs will ice over. Some horses will attempt to strike the ice with their front hooves to break it, which can lead to injury if they bang their legs on their water receptacles.
Stabled horses’ water generally won’t ice over. However, many stabled horses simply aren’t given enough water. Considering that a horse drinks up to 55 liters per day, a 15-liter bucket in the stable isn’t enough for an entire night. An automatic waterer may be a better option, as it will keep your horse continually supplied with as much clean, fresh water as he wants.
Horses sleeping out will need more careful watering, as their water troughs will ice over or even freeze solid. If you have no other option, be sure to go out and break the ice so that they can drink last thing at night and first thing in the morning. A better option is to use a heated water trough, which will keep the water just warm enough to be comfortable for your horse to drink. This will also prevent the mild colic that occurs when a horse drinks too much ice water and gives himself tummy cramps. (Don’t let this stop you from allowing your horse to drink from clean, but icy, creeks and other water sources on the trail – it’s better for him to have a mild bellyache from the cold water hitting his stomach than to get dehydrated or have an impaction colic).
Finally, you can also feed your horse additional electrolytes. This will encourage him to drink more and keep him well hydrated.
Tip 2. Adjust your nutrition accordingly
Even horses that are easy keepers in summer will immediately expend more energy the moment it starts to get cold. While horses in good condition have an insulating fat layer to keep them warm, and they won’t feel that cold if you provide adequate shelter and blanketing, all horses will use more energy as their body’s metabolic processes work to maintain body temperature. In addition to this, grazing will be either low in nutritional value or completely absent from the diet.
The best solution to this problem is to feed vast amounts of hay – preferably ad lib and in an open feeder instead of a hay net. Not only does this roughage replace lost grazing, but hay takes longer to digest than concentrates, which means that the digestive process itself generates more heat. If you do feed concentrates, feed more fats and oils to help your horse maintain his condition.
Tip 3. Use shelter and blankets to keep your horse warm.
Many horses are happy and comfortable living out year-round, especially horses native to that area or who were born in that area and are accustomed to staying outside. As long as they’re allowed to grow a full winter coat, they can still enjoy the liberty of the outdoors all winter long. However, all horses should be provided with a run-in shelter for protection from the elements. Deep bedding such as shavings will keep your horses warm and comfortable in there, too.
Stabled horses also need a deeper bed than normal, encouraging them to lie down and snuggle into their soft bed, which keeps their vulnerable belly areas warm.
Blanketing may or may not be necessary depending on your horse, the climate, and your management system. Clipped horses should be stabled and wear a thick duvet, while those living out may need a rain sheet or a full turnout rug for protection from the wet and cold.
Tip 4. Cooldown carefully after exercise
Winter exercise is good for you and your horse, and during the ride, your horse may be significantly warmed up and feel happy and comfortable. However, it’s essential that you cool those hot muscles down slowly by a long period of slow work – preferably walking – and by adjusting your blankets carefully as you finish the ride. Ideally, your horse should warm up wearing a quarter sheet.
When cooling down, walk briskly until your horse has stopped sweating and his breathing has returned to normal. Jump off, quickly remove your saddle, and sponge your horse’s sweaty areas with lukewarm water. Scrape the water off and then cover your horse with a sweat sheet, which will keep him warm but still allow him to dry. Walk him – either in hand or in a horse walker – quietly until he is completely dry before rugging him back up again and returning him to the stable or field.