Winter care for horses

During the winter months horse owners can forget 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 easier to check and make certain the horse is fit and in good health.

One of the worst things for a horse during the winter months is ice. Don’t let troughs and buckets freeze! Adequate water for a horse during cold weather is often overlooked. 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. 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 ensure that the heater is not shorting out and shocking the horse. An electric shock could prevent the horse from drinking.

Horses have 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 or is covered with mud. It is important to provide a dry sheltered area in cold wet weather and provide regular grooming.
During long spells of weather stay alert for rain scald and other skin problems. Unchecked, scald can result in hair loss and skin irritation.

Most nutritional needs of the horse do not change during the winter season. Vitamin, mineral, and protein requirements depend on 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.

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 direction, 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 promote respiratory health.

One important aspect of care that often is neglected is hoof care. Even when not regularly ridden, horse 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 ensures that when spring arrives, the horse will have sound hooves that will be capable of holding a shoe. As always, be on the alert for hoof parasites.

The most important thing for wintering horses is not to just turn horses out and forget about them. Every day at every feeding, horses should receive at least a quick visual examination; and preferably a more thorough check to ensure that any problems are not left unnoticed.


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