10 tips to help you care for your horse this winter
Caring for your equine buddy is a big job all year round but winter is when your horse needs a bit of extra love and care to stay happy and healthy. Of course, all the usual good horse care practices apply, but these top ten winter survival tips will help make those cold winter months a little more bearable.
1. Let your horse eat... like a horse! As the days get colder, your horse will burn more calories attempting to keep warm. There is very little nutritional value in the winter pastures, so you’ll need to pack more calories into their daily feed. Give your horse an ample supply of roughage in the form of digestible fibre like hay and chaff because your horse will convert this into energy in the form of heat that will help them stay warm. Giving your horse more food over winter will also help them maintain a healthy weight and insulate their body. But, do be careful not to bulk up your horse if they already carry extra weight as this could risk obesity. Keep a check on your horse’s weight regularly by using the body condition scoring system.
2. Give your horse's diet a nutritional boost
If your horse is underweight, you might want to consider adding some additional goodness. A quality vitamin and mineral supplement can provide additional nutrients or you could use a concentrated feed that has all the vitamins and minerals already added. Make sure you feed your horse at the recommended rates. It’s a good idea to chat with your vet to make sure you have the right balance for your horse’s requirements.
3. Keep their pearly whites in check Check that your horse’s dental examination and worm regime is up-to-date as a horse with sharp teeth cannot chew and process hay effectively and parasitism can also cause weight loss.
4. Lead your horse to water
Making sure your horse is properly hydrated is, as you know, vitally important for overall health. However, you may not realise that in winter, horses need extra hydration! This is mainly due to the fact that winter feed such as hay contains less than 15% moisture; a lot less than pasture. Poor water consumption during cold weather can result in a horse eating less and if their fecal material becomes too dry this can, over time, cause a blockage resulting in impaction colic. Make sure their water supply cannot freeze and if you really want to spoil your horse, keep their water slightly warm.
5. To rug or not to rug?
A good quality and well-fitting rug can help your horse maintain condition; a cold, wet horse loses a lot of body fat keeping warm. Keep in mind though that if your horse is overweight, a rug will actually help them maintain fat so it may be best not to rug them. If you don’t allow them to shift some kilos over winter, they can risk getting fatter and more prone to diseases such as laminitis.
If you do rug your horse, it is essential to fit the blanket well and check it regularly (at least twice a day) to make sure that the straps have not broken, as slipped rugs can cause injury to your horse. Rugs should be removed regularly to make sure they are not rubbing or letting in water. Leaky rugs can create the perfect moist environment for skin infections such as rain scald.
6. Let them grow their hair out Horses begin to grow their coats when the days start to get shorter so they have extra insulation when the cold weather kicks in. It’s important to let the hair grow, but be careful it doesn’t become matted- especially if you have rugged - and groom frequently to remove dead skin and hair which can cause nasty skin problems. Grooming’s essential but your horse still needs to behave like a real horse so allow them to roll in sand or mud from time to time for the sheer pleasure it brings!
7. Keep them dry and warm Horses should be given access to shelter, whether it’s a shed, stable or tree line so they can get respite from wind, rain and chilly breezes. A healthy horse can cope with low temperatures without any problem but will usually seek out shelter if it’s raining. Some breeds have a fine coat (such as Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds) which means that they tend to feel the wet and cold more than others. However, even horses with thick winter coats should have somewhere to escape from the weather.
8. Make sure they are warmed up before a big ride Most horse owners/riders understand the importance of warming up a horse before a ride, but it’s even more important in the winter months.
A thorough groom, walk around and massage should precede a warm up under saddle followed by a stretch. This routine should reduce the risk of muscle injuries and help avoid expensive vet bills.
9. Winter pedicures are a must Horse lovers know they need to clean their horse’s hooves regularly, but sometimes in the winter months it might be tempting to miss this part of horse care as all that mud is pretty messy! However, it’s actually more vital during winter. Excessive hoof growth or splits can cause bacterial infections such as thrush or seedy toe when conditions are muddy and wet. Shod horses should have their hooves trimmed about every four to six weeks irrespective of whether they have worn the shoes out or not. Unshod (barefoot) horses should have their hooves trimmed about every three to four weeks (maximum six weeks).
10. Mud Management Mud can be a real pain during the wetter months. Not only is it harder to maneuver around, it can also be a health risk to you and your horse. There are some things you can do to reduce the impacts of the mud such as: •Good guttering and downspouts on any sheds. •Some form of firm footing installed. •Regular removal of manure. •Rotating water and feed containers to avoid one area having all the traffic and becoming a muddy mess.
If you have the space, think about using a ‘sacrifice area’ like a smaller paddock that can be used for turnout when the larger field or paddock is too wet.
These tips are a general guide only – every horse has different requirements. If you have any concerns about your horse, consider getting a full equine veterinary examination - especially if your horse is underweight or is very young or elderly as they will find it harder to cope with the cold weather. A vet can also tailor an appropriate and balanced feeding plan if needed.