Winterizing horses when temperatures are below freezing is simply not fun. Facing that scenario with frozen water tanks, a dwindling forage supply, and a horse that’s dropping weight can quickly make you rethink horse ownership altogether!
While there’s not much you can do about Mother Nature, there are steps you can take to prevent her from ruining your winter days. We’ve got valuable tips to help you prepare your animals.
Ready Your Steeds
It’s no secret that some horses handle frigid temperatures better than others. There are several steps you can take to help the cold-weather wimps endure winter as well as they possibly can.
Ensure your horse is in good health A wellness exam is a good idea any time of year, but a pre-winter check-up is especially wise if you’re managing geriatric horses or equids with chronic conditions, says Amy R. Leibeck, DVM, of the Genesee Valley Equine Clinic, in Scottsville, New York. Scottsville is located just 15 miles from Rochester—one of the snowiest cities in the United States, averaging nearly 100 inches of the white stuff each year.
“In our neck of the woods, the winter can be very difficult even on the healthiest and most robust of horses,” Leibeck says. “Those horses with arthritis weakened immune systems due to equine Cushing’s disease, dental issues, or other problems that limit mobility or ability to use all of the fuel fed to them would certainly benefit from an examination.” Then the examining veterinarian can recommend ways to help the horses best handle the winter months.
Monitor winter coat growth Horses begin growing their winter coats as early as September when the days start getting shorter and the nights longer. Keep an eye on the coat your horse develops. If it’s thick and insulating, he might have no trouble weathering winter without a blanket. However, if he doesn’t grow a significant coat and you reside in a cold or snowy climate, he might benefit from the extra layer.
If you need blankets for your horses, stop in to Olsen’s Grain and we will help find you the right one.
Check your horse’s vaccination status By the time winter arrives in northern climates, most mosquitoes—and the diseases they carry, such as Eastern equine encephalomyelitis (EEE), Western equine encephalomyelitis (WEE), and West Nile virus (WNV)—are long gone. But there might still be some vaccines your horse needs.
“If someone wants to have vaccines divided up over the year, then it would be fine to give rabies and tetanus in the winter since the risk of rabies or tetanus exposure is a year-round problem,” Leibeck says. “For horses who are on the move at shows on weekends or being taken on and off the farm where they’re exposed to other horses, a rhino/flu booster is suggested every six months, so that might be given at this time, as well.”
Secure forage early, “If you have room to store bulk quantities of hay, don’t wait until the last minute to purchase your winter hay stores,” says Alayne Blickle, the Nampa, Idaho-based founder of Horses for Clean Water and blogger on TheHorse.com. “Otherwise, ensure you have a reliable supplier who will have hay available all winter long.”
“Once temperatures reach 20°F, horses’ nutritional needs start to change,” says Leibeck. She recommends that her clients feed an extra flake per horse per day when lows hit 20°F, and an additional flake for each 10 degrees temperatures continue to drop. So, an average 1,000-pound horse might need an extra three flakes in zero-degree temperatures.
“You may want to consider having the hay analyzed so that logical, economical decisions about grain for the winter can be made,” Leibeck suggests.
And don’t forget—hay isn’t the only forage source you can offer to your horse to ensure he consumes enough fiber.
“All horses, especially older horses with poor or missing teeth, need to … get adequate fiber in winter,” Janicki says. “The digestion of fiber actually helps to keep horses warm in winter. If your horse cannot eat long-stemmed forage or turns his nose up at your hay, you need to find something that he will eat. Consider fiber cubes, pellets, or beet pulp.”
Water is Important Even When It’s Cold
Keep your horse drinking, Of course, your horse will need constant access to fresh, unfrozen water all winter. We’ll describe ways to keep your water sources thawed in a moment, but sometimes it’s not the water source that’s the troublesome horses are just picky drinkers. Horses that don’t drink enough water during the winter run the risk of developing impaction colic and becoming dehydrated.
“Horses actually prefer to drink water that is around 65°F in cold weather,” Janicki says. And if warm, unfrozen water alone doesn’t do the trick, “you can also add a flavoring or electrolytes to the water to encourage the horse to drink.”
Don’t neglect hoof care, Leibeck stresses that winter, and the time leading up to it is not the time to skip trims or wait longer between shoeings.
“Shod horses who are turned out during the winter months may need modifications so that the snow does not ball up on the sole,” she explains. “Snowball pads are available in a few styles.”
She encourages owners to talk with their farrier about what horses will be doing and where they will be living for the winter to determine what trimming or shoeing regimen will work best for each. “There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ option on this,” she says.
Winterizing horses can be a daunting task, but it’s certainly less of a project than waiting to fix problems that arise when a winter storm hits. Getting horses and facilities ready in advance can help ensure you weather the transitions from fall to winter to spring without a hitch in your horse care routine.