Managing horses during the long winter months can be difficult, particularly when temperatures plummet below zero, so here are some tips to help you through the cold days and dark evenings until spring.
- Ensure there is sufficient shelter for horses that live out, particularly for those that aren’t rugged.
- In early winter, fields should be checked for sycamore seeds (containing toxins associated with seasonal pasture myopathy) and acorns, both of which are poisonous to horses and easily blown onto the pasture on windy days. If you have sycamore or oak trees on your pasture, it is preferable to fence them off or remove the horses from these paddocks. If these paddocks are in use, ensure adequate forage is available so that the horses are less tempted to ingest any dropped sycamore seeds or acorns.
- To reduce the risk of poached gateways or water access points, hardcore or field matting may be needed.
- Moving water troughs or buckets periodically will help to reduce poaching around these areas.
- Consider rotating grazing to avoid poaching, or designate a paddock specifically for winter turnout, ideally one that drains well.
- When putting hay in the field, ensure there are more piles of hay than there are horses, and keep them far enough apart to help prevent kick injuries and reduce bullying. This also encourages your horse to move around and reduces poaching and the risk of conditions such as mud fever.
- Turnout may need to be restricted in very wet conditions to prevent excessive poaching and health problems such as mud fever. However, where possible daily turnout is recommended for the horse’s physical and mental health.
- Droppings should still be removed from paddocks and an effective worming programme implemented, to reduce the risk of parasite burden.
Rugging and grooming
- Horses can use up to 80% of their energy keeping warm, so if they are clipped or prone to feeling the cold, ensure they are adequately rugged.
- Equally, if the temperature rises, make sure your horse isn’t wearing too many layers, as they can lose condition by sweating and may also catch a chill when they cool down if the sweat cannot wick away through non-breathable fabrics.
- Remove outdoor and stable rugs at least once a day to ensure that they are fitting well, with no rubs to your horse’s withers or other pressure points and to monitor your horse’s weight and condition.
- Outdoor rugs should also be checked for tears and to ensure that they are waterproof – remove a rug that is wet through and replace it with a dry one as soon as possible.
- If your horse isn’t rugged and lives out, don't over groom as this may strip the coat of the natural oils and reduce its waterproofing abilities; dry mud or dirt also provides an extra layer of warmth.
- Ensure there is adequate shelter from the elements - and keep a close watch for rain scald and mud fever when conditions are wet.
- When washing mud off legs, be aware that this may cause more problems in some horses than leaving the mud to dry naturally. If drying off wet legs, use a clean towel and if there are any signs of mud fever, ensure they are treated promptly. Contact your vet if you suspect any signs of infection or need any advice on how best to manage the condition.
- Ensure your horse has access to a good supply of clean, fresh water at all times – if minus temperatures are forecast, fill up water buckets and keep them in the tack or feed room overnight so you don’t have to worry immediately about frozen taps and pipes in the morning.
- Check regularly that automatic waterers in stables are in good working order and are not frozen.
- Putting a ball in the field water trough can prevent it from freezing solid.
- Nutrition and Exercise
- The amount a horse should be fed depends on the time of year, age and condition of the horse, workload and quality of feed. We see more episodes of colic and muscle disorders (such as ‘tying up’) during winter due to changes in diet, exercise and management.
- Fibre is essential to maintain normal gastrointestinal function and many nutritionists recommend feeding a prebiotic daily to horses that are susceptible to colic.
- Good quality hay or haylage should be fed at regular intervals when there is little grass to pick at in the paddock, or during prolonged periods in the stable. Ensuring your horse has access to adequate good quality forage (grass, hay or haylage) is essential, not only to maintain energy levels but the process of digesting forage produces a lot of heat so will help keep him warm.
- For ‘good doers’ and to alleviate boredom in stabled horses, forage can be fed in small-hole haynets or double haynets to encourage them to eat more slowly.
- Don’t be tempted to increase their hard feed during winter as this could lead to obesity or conditions such as laminitis and colic. If your horse gains or loses weight any time of the year you may need to review your feeding plan, however it may be advantageous for a good doer to lose a bit of weight in the winter before the spring grass arrives.
- For fussy eaters, there is a wide range of fibre feeds available that can be fed as an alternative to hay. For horses that lose weight easily but are prone to fizziness if their concentrates ration is increased, plenty of fibre and a good quality feed balancer can help maintain condition and provide the correct level of vitamins and minerals due to the reduced nutritional value of grass in winter.
- Older horses may require extra care, with a joint supplement or additional rugs and feed if they are not getting sufficient exercise, are feeling the cold or losing weight.
- All horses should be exercised and spend time out of the stable every day. During exercise, ensure that you ‘warm up’ and ‘warm down’ your horses muscles correctly – this is more important during the winter months. Also, if you horse sweats during exercise, cool it down correctly with warm water or hot towels and then dry it off use an appropriate wicking rug to wick away any excess moisture and prevent chills.
- Seek professional advice from your vet or a reputable nutritionist if you have any concerns about your horse’s diet.
- Stables should be well ventilated, but not draughty.
- Bedding should be dry, clean and dust-free to minimise the chance of your horse picking up respiratory disorders. A good, deep bed will also help to keep out draughts.
- Consider using a stable disinfectant regularly to reduce ammonia levels.
- Hay and haylage should be dust-free to minimise the risk of coughs and allergies. As stated earlier, always ensure a supply of clean, fresh water and in sub-zero temperatures, check that automatic waterers are not frozen.
- Remove hose pipes from taps and fill buckets of water to be kept in the tack room so that you have a supply in the morning if taps freeze overnight.
- Finally, keep a supply of salt and/or grit to spread on the yard when conditions are icy to prevent you and your horse from slipping!
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