Winter Preparation for Your Horse
AUTHORS: Courtney Allred, Jessi Cook, and Tia Williams, Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine, Class of 2018 and Dr. Elizabeth Yorke, Associate Professor of Equine Surgery, Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine
It’s that time of year again! Although Alabama winters are generally milder than more northern states, winter can still be challenging for our horses. Older horses especially may feel the effects of the weather change. To maintain your horse’s health and safety this winter season, there are several factors to consider. Proper preparations for nutrition, exercise, housing, and blanketing will help to ensure your horse handles the winter well. We are here to help you organize your winter prep.
Proper nutrition is imperative to keeping your horse healthy throughout the winter. Preparation for colder temperatures often occurs long before the first frost occurs and can start as early as April. Here are some keys points to help you focus on what you can do to make a smooth transition into winter for you and your horses.
- Evaluate your horse’s body condition. It is important to place your hands on your horses once a day. This allows you to physically evaluate your horses’ body condition. Sometimes it is hard to determine if they have adequate coverage due to the thick winter coat they acquire as the winter continues. A good way to do this is to get a baseline of how your horse looks and feels before their winter coat grows so much, so you have a reference of what they need to look and feel like once they have grown out their coat. It is easier for your horse to maintain his/her weight than to have to gain weight back during the cold months. A body condition score of a 5 or 6 on the scale of 1-9 increases the fat layer underneath the skin, which acts as an insulator. A horse that is moderately fleshy entering winter will have a lower maintenance need, requiring less calories to maintain weight. However, be mindful of horses with current or previous issues such as laminitis or equine metabolic syndrome, as increasing body condition on them can have more negative effects than positive. Work with your veterinarian to determine the optimal body condition for your particular horse.
- Plan for the hay you will need. As pasture grass is often scarce in the winter, the majority of your horse’s winter nutrition comes from hay. Beginning to store hay early (ideally in the spring) will help to keep you from having to buy it later, often at higher prices, as the weather begins to cool. This will also ensure that it is stored correctly until it is fed. Having plenty of forage for the winter not only keeps your horses occupied and full, but it also will help to keep them warm. Digestion of forage creates heat, which your horse can use to maintain his body temperature. A good rule of thumb is to provide 2% or more of their body weight in roughage. For example, if you have a 1,000 lb horse, he should get 20 lbs of roughage per day. Allowing continuous hay consumption throughout the day is the best way to provide consistent warmth and energy. Square bales are easy for feeding stalled horses while round bales make feeding horses in a pasture more efficient. Whatever type you choose, ensure that it is free from mold or discoloration.
- Add grain, if necessary. Though ample, good quality forage should be the basis of your horse’s diet, a balanced grain ration can be beneficial. Although it does not aid in creating body heat like roughage, it benefits the horse by adding caloric intake. This can be especially important if you have a geriatric horse that requires more calories. As some horses age, their teeth may become less able to chew forage sufficiently, which can lead to decreased absorption and digestion of the feedstuff. This ultimately will lead to weight loss. Consider a grain designed for older horses, which provide additional fiber and fat while being balanced and palatable. Senior feeds are safer than other types of grain for horses that require large amounts of supplemental feed because they can’t adequately process hay. Adding a fat source such as oil can also help to provide additional calories.
- Supplements. Mineral blocks that contain salt and other minerals can help balance your horse’s diet during winter, as well as the rest of the year. The salt content can encourage your horse to drink water in winter months, when water consumption may otherwise drop off. It is best to pick a mineral block that is palatable and somewhat soft. Some horses can’t get what they need when the block is too hard.
- Water. Another important factor for winter prep is to ensure that your horse has access to drinking water at all times. An average 1000lb horse requires around 5-10 gallons of water per day. The digestion process requires a certain amount of water to keep ingesta moving properly through the GI tract. Decreased water intake can cause dehydration and dry gastrointestinal contents, which can lead to impaction colic. This may occur over a period of several days before signs are noticeable. Ways to ensure that our horses are drinking water include the following:
- Measure your horses water intake to ensure that they are drinking their daily requirement.
- Add salt to the diet to encourage drinking.
- Make sure water buckets or troughs are always clean and provide more than one source (2 buckets per stall, 2 troughs per pasture). Herd hierarchy doesn’t just occur with food sources, so multiple water sources in the pasture will help to ensure all horses have access to water.
- Providing warm water in the winter months has been proven to increase water intake over cold water.
In Alabama, we get our share of freezing nights and frozen water buckets. One way to avoid this is to buy bucket warmers or de-icers especially for outdoor water sources. Plug in and check your warmers first (especially if you have had them for a while) to make sure they are working properly and do not have any loose wires. Pack foam padding around water faucets or spigots and leave water dripping slightly to prevent the water hoses from freezing. And check those buckets and troughs daily in the colder weather!
In addition to nutrition, management of exercise is also important. As with most of us, the colder months brings a chill to our bodies and often leaves us with stiffer, colder muscles. Geriatric horses, especially those with arthritis, can have a difficult time in the winter. It is usually better to avoid confining horses for long periods of time if possible. Consistent, low intensity exercise such as pasture turnout is best for joint health. If stalling is unavoidable, hand walk for 10-15 minutes several times a day. This will keep the circulation flowing to help decrease swelling of the lower limbs and stiffness in the joints. Keep ample bedding in the stalls to provide adequate cushioning. If you plan to ride your horse during the winter, consider these points:
- Warm your horse up for 10-15 minutes. Start off with a nice walk and work in some stretch exercises. Gradually increase to a trot while incorporating the stretches. This will warm and loosen up your horses muscles and joints and help prevent injury and cramping.
- Cool down appropriately. It is just as important to cool your horse down as it is to warm up. A 10-15 minute cool down is usually adequate but depends on the individual horse and the amount of exercise. By the end of your cool down, your horse should be mostly dry and not breathing hard. If it is really cold or your horse is still sweaty, a sweat-sheet may be needed to ensure that your horse does not catch a chill from the moisture. An improper cool down or lack of one in colder weather can lead to a stiff or sore horse.
- Be cautious about hosing off your horse. We may be tempted to give our horses baths on warmer-than-usual winter days, but remember that his longer winter coat won’t dry as quickly as in the summer. He must be completely dry before the temperature drops again in the evening. Never put a blanket on a wet horse as he will be unable to dry underneath it. This can chill a horse quickly. An anti-sweat sheet, also called an Irish Knit, can help to keep a horse from chilling while his coat dries.
SHELTER & BLANKETING
Adequate shelter during the colder months of the year is a must, whether it be a barn, a run-in shed, or at the minimum, a large tree or round bales of hay as a windbreak. Whatever method is selected, make sure there is adequate room for each horse. Generally, 100-120 square feet is adequate space for one horse, with 60 square feet needed per additional horse. It is important to make sure horses are not over-crowded, as injuries may occur or some horses may be pushed out of the shelter.
While the majority of horses don’t need to wear a blanket in Alabama’s relatively mild winters, it is useful to know the times when a blanket may help your horse. Whether or not to blanket is especially dependent on the availability of shelter and if the horse could get wet in a winter rain. In mild to moderate winter weather, a healthy horse should maintain his body temperature well so long as he remains dry. The horse’s hair coat normally acts as an insulator, trapping warm air against the body. If the coat gets wet, it decreases its ability to insulate and thus the body’s ability to regulate temperature.
Consider blanketing your horse in the following circumstances:
- The wind chill is less than 15 degrees Fahrenheit
- Rain, freezing rain, or ice are in the forecast, especially if the horse doesn’t have access to a covered shelter
- The horse is body-clipped
- The horse recently moved to Alabama from a warmer climate
- The horse is sick
- The horse’s body condition score is less than 3
- The horse is very young or very old
If you decide to blanket, make sure you have one that fits properly. Improperly fitted blankets can be sources of skin irritation, rubs and sores, especially on the shoulders or withers. Make sure your blanket is waterproof if it will be used outside in the rain. A wet blanket is worse than no blanket at all. And remember, do not put a blanket on a wet horse.
Because Alabama frequently has warm days even in the winter, don’t leave a blanket on your horse continuously. If the weather is over 50 degrees, no blanket is needed. If your horse is sweating under the blanket, the blanket is too heavy for the weather. Make sure you remove your horse’s blanket every day to check for sores.
OTHER IMPORTANT MAINTANENCE
- Cold, windy weather can be stressful for horses, decreasing their immune response. Horses may also spend more time indoors, which also increases the probablily of disease spread. It is just as important to keep up with your vaccination schedule throughout the winter as it is during the other months of the year. Here in the south, we recommend vaccinating against the mosquito-borne diseases (West Nile and eastern and western encephalitis) twice a year, since transmission can occur later in the year than the northern states. In addition to your horse’s core vaccines, consider having your vet give a booster for respiratory diseases such as Equine Influenza and Equine Herpesvirus every 6 months.
- Deworming. Parasite control for your horse is also extremely important during the winter to maintain body condition. Have your vet run a fecal egg count (an easy and inexpensive test) to see how heavy a worm load your horse has. Your vet will then tell you whether you should deworm or not, and which product to use. We don’t recommend the old method of rotating dewormer products anymore, because it has led to unnecessary medicating of horses and parasites developing resistance to dewormers.
- Dental care. Ensuring your horses, especially older ones, have proper dental care going into winter is a must. Every horse should have at least one dental exam per year, but older horses should have two dental exams per year, with one of them being in the Fall. This allows your veterinarian to fix any problems before your horse heads into winter. If horses can’t chew their food appropriately, they can’t absorb the nutrients from their food. What this means is that it doesn’t matter if they are fed the highest quality roughage or grain, if they can’t chew it, it will have little nutritional benefit to them. Don’t wait for obvious difficulty chewing or dropping of feed before you call your vet for a dental exam. Some horses hide dental problems for a while before they start showing obvious signs. The best way to avoid major (and possibly expensive) dental issues is for your vet to perform regular dentistry before there are big problems.
- Hoof care. Lastly, regular hoof care needs to be continued throughout the winter. Keeping hoofs trimmed to the correct shape will help to prevent lameness issues and allow your horse to be more comfortable.
For questions on this topic, please contact Dr. Elizabeth Yorke at firstname.lastname@example.org