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Prepare Your Horses for Winter

Mark A. Wallace, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVIM
Reidsville Veterinary Hospital

The cold weather is almost upon us and its time to think about what special care and precautions may be needed to keep our horses healthy through the winter. Most horses will handle the cold weather just fine but there are a few simple management changes that can help, especially with older horses.

Horses rely on us to provide adequate shelter and nutrition throughout the year and this becomes even more important during the winter. Horses should have access to covered shelter or at minimum a windbreak. In our climate, horses that have been allowed to grow a full winter hair coat may not need blanketing as long as they can get dry and out of the wind. 

Remember to avoid tight fitting or heavy blankets in horses with a heavy hair coat as this can prevent hair from rising and reduce the natural insulating effect. For those horses that are showing during the winter it will be important to maintain a shorter coat. In addition to blanketing, the amount of daylight (photoperiod) has a direct effect on the hair growth cycle. To maintain a slick coat through the winter, lighting programs that offer 16 hours of light per day should be started in the early fall.

A common problem that is encountered during the colder months is decreased water consumption by horses. As water temperature lowers (especially below 450F), horses tend to drink less. It is important to remember that this decreased water intake occurs long before the water actually freezes. Decreased water intake along with removal of horses from pastures can lead to colic problems. Efforts should be taken to ensure that horses continue to consume as much water as possible during the winter months. These steps may include changing the water often to prevent freezing, using automatic waterers, using water heating devices and adding salt or electrolytes to the feed. Water can also be added directly to the feed to encourage additional intake.

Feeding practices may need to be adjusted during the cooler months to maintain adequate body condition since horsesí nutrient requirements will increase with colder temperatures. Horses should continue to be fed according to body condition year round (remember to take a good feel over the ribs for body fat levels as heavy winter coats can cover weight loss). An increase in roughage may be needed since digestion of hay will generate heat internally and help keep horses warm during the winter. If your horse is being ridden less during the winter months, a decrease in the amount of concentrate that is fed may be needed, whereas horses in full work may not need any changes.

Routine hoof care needs to be continued through the winter months even though hoof growth may be slightly slower than during the cooler months and horses may be ridden less. One foot problem that may occur during the winter include sole bruising from frozen ground. Snow and ice can lead to iceball formation on the bottom of feet. Some horses that are pastured during times of heavy snowfall may benefit from pulling the shoes or from the application of snow pads. Alternatively, the bottom of feet can be greased with butter, margarine or petroleum jelly in an attempt to reduce snow and ice accumulation. Shoes can fitted with welded spots of borium if additional traction is needed for shod horses. When riding horses during the winter it is important to remember that longer warm-up and cool-down periods may be needed in an attempt to avoid soft tissue injuries.

Geriatric horses are more sensitive to extremes of temperature and may require a higher level of care during the cooler months than their younger counterparts. Horses with arthritic joints may experience more soreness during cold weather. It is often helpful to maintain turnout and self exercise in the older arthritic horse but consult with your veterinarian for specific recommendations for your horse. Poor dentition can make adequate hay consumption more challenging. The use of higher fat, more digestible senior diets can help these older horses maintain weight and generate heat through the winter. The addition of warm water can also make chewing easier and add some extra water intake.

So remember, provide good shelter from snow, wind and rain, check water sources often, monitor water intake and feed plenty of good quality hay to ensure optimal horse health throughout the winter.

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