Winter can be a tough time to own horses: fewer daylight hours, colder temperatures, ice buckets and lots of mud. While the weather can be unpredictable, you don’t have to be stressful to deal with your horse during the colder season.
Making a winter management plan can help you feel more confident and organized; Check out these six tips from the Bransby Horses Equine Charity for taking care of your horse this winter.
1. Provide the right nutrition
Over the centuries, horses have evolved to create a digestive process that ferments their food and creates additional heat. Forage, like hay, produces more heat during the fermentation process than other foods.
As tempting as it may sound, it is not advisable to overload horses with hard / concentrated feed during the winter if they are not working hard. This can lead to health problems such as colic, obesity, and laminitis.
With this in mind, it is vital that animals have access to good amounts of forage in winter. Spreading hay in the pens will reduce the risk of fights and injuries. It is recommended that older horses undergo a dental check to ensure they have a good grinding surface so that they can cope with forage during the winter.
Due to the grass’s low nutritional content in winter, it is also widely recommended that it be given a vitamin and mineral supplement or a dietary balancer.
2. Check your water supply
Water is just as important in cold weather as it is in hot weather; horses can often drink more water in winter when fed dried fodder like hay.
Remember to check the troughs every day to make sure they are clean and not frozen. A tennis ball or a small soccer ball left to float in water can help prevent water from freezing in very cold weather.
Sometimes very low temperatures can also freeze hoses and faucets, so keep an eye on the forecast and if it drops, fill emergency water buckets in a tack room or feeding room to use as Reserve.
3. Choose the right rugs
Horses and ponies have evolved to fluctuate in their weight throughout the year, allowing them to adapt to different seasons. In spring and summer, many horses and ponies accumulate a few extra pounds and store them as fat for the winter.
A horse’s innate ability to fluctuate its weight can be affected by unnecessary use of blankets, which can lead to long-term obesity and other health complications. This is why not all horses or ponies need blankets. Key factors such as race, age, living conditions, workload and health status must be taken into account.
Native types such as the Shetland and Welsh ponies are adapted to life in colder conditions. They can develop thick winter coats, filled with natural oils to protect them from the elements. Over-grooming can remove these oils, so be careful not to over-groom these breeds.
Warmbloods and Thoroughbreds, with thinner coats, are more likely to have a hard time staying warm and would benefit from a mat. Work horses that are shorn should be sturdy, just like older, sick or injured horses. Remove rugs daily and check for signs of chafing or skin irritation.
Choose the right weight blanket for the weather conditions and the horse’s needs. Likewise, rugs that are not made from breathable materials can cause more problems than they solve. Choose your horse’s blanket wisely and if in doubt speak to the manufacturer.
Having a place to dry your rugs when they get wet in the rain and a spare to run them on on wetter days is also a good idea.
4. Provide shelter from the elements
Stable overnight or all year round – each approach has its own merits.
Choosing to go out year-round is an option for your horse or pony, as long as proper shelter and forage are available. Outdoor shelters don’t need to be man-made structures – a group of trees can provide adequate shelter, as can hedges. Just make sure the whole herd can comfortably take refuge in the pen.
If you choose to keep a horse in the stable, provide a bedding that is low dust and deep enough for the horse to lie down comfortably. Empty and ventilate the stable daily to prevent ammonia build-up, which can cause breathing problems.
Stable horses should be taken out daily for exercise and their natural behaviors. Horses confined to a stable, without regular outings, can experience physical and mental stress.
Unforeseen circumstances, such as extreme weather conditions, could mean that you will not be able to reach your horse or the yard. Determine who could take care of your horse if this happened and how this situation could be handled.
5. Maintain the paddocks and fences
Mud and winter go hand in hand; most horse owners are good at walking the waterlogged fields on cold, dark nights or mornings.
Walkways, waterers and hay fodder inevitably become difficult and require careful navigation for horses and humans. For horses, these wet and muddy conditions can lead to skin irritation and fungal infections such as mud fever.
Regularly brush and check the legs for sores and always seek the advice of a veterinarian if you are concerned.
Laying hard or specialty paddock mats around high traffic areas can help. If there is sufficient land, rotational grazing methods can also be used. Check all fences around the paddock daily. Even a small hole in a fence could cause serious damage or become an emergency exit.
6. Exercise according to the weather
Ice and frost can be a real challenge, especially on dark winter nights or early in the morning. Buy a good amount of gravel and salt; when it gets icy, sprinkle it on yards and alleys – this will make it easier for the horse and owner to walk without slipping or causing injury.
Likewise, do not ride on slippery surfaces or if visibility is poor. It is important that your horse or pony can go out on a daily basis, whether it is under the saddle, in hand or in a heaving area.
Movement and the grass help increase bowel mobility and reduce the risk of colic. Exercise according to the weather and your horse’s temperament.
Bransby Horses in Lincolnshire is dedicated to improving the welfare of equines through rescue, rehabilitation, rehousing, education and providing a safe haven. They are one of the largest equine welfare charities in the UK.
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