When Old Man Winter arrives each year, we’re prepared to greet him with warm clothing, logs for the fire and plenty of hot chocolate in the cupboard. But what about horses?
Cold weather affects animals just as it does humans, and your equine companion will need your help to stay healthy and happy through the months of icy pastures and driving snow.
Follow these basic winter heath-care tips to ensure your horse not only survives but thrives this winter season.
Your horse can develop colic at any time of the year, but fall and winter, themselves, are considered risk factors. This is due largely to the disruption in diet that occurs as a horse transitions from spending most of its time in the pasture to its winter home in the barn. Ideally, the transition should be managed over at least 5 to 7 days to give the animal’s digestive system enough time to adapt.
Also, a diet rich in hay, with a lesser emphasis on concentrates, should be maintained throughout the period of winter confinement. For a deeper dive into the causes of colic and how you can avoid it, please see our Fall 2016 newsletter article, Colic is Coming.
Hay should account for the bulk of your horse’s diet. It provides not only the nutrients required for growth and daily activity, but also the fibre that is essential for hindgut health. During cold weather, horses get another benefit from eating hay: it helps them stay warm. This occurs because hay digestion in the horse’s stomach produces lots of heat — more heat than digestion of concentrates.
As the mercury falls and horses burn more calories to stay warm, weight loss can result. If you horse is losing weight because it’s not getting enough calories, you’ll need to increase its hay rations. Try to stock sufficient hay for a long winter. If you happen to run short, you can stretch your supply by mixing in other forage options, including hay cubes, beet pulp and complete feeds.
Ensure your horse always has access to fresh water. The risk of impaction colic rises sharply if water is unavailable. During winter, a layer of ice can form quickly on the surface of water in a bucket. You need to be attentive to prevent this from occurring, particularly during periods of extreme cold. Additionally, some horses will drink less if their water is icy cold. If you observe your horse avoiding cold water, you should consider installing a heating device for horse waterers and troughs.
Horses are naturally insulated from the cold by a layer of air trapped in their coats. In winter, their coats grow fluffier, providing even more insulation. When a blanket is put on a horse, the coat is compressed, pushing out the air — and undermining the insulation.
Generally, the best approach is to allow Mother Nature to work her magic, but there are times when a blanket can help, including if your horse is visibly shivering, during extreme cold snaps and if your horse has an unusually thin hair coat.
In the case that you’re seeking to prevent the growth of a thick winter coat — because, for example, it would cause your horse to get overheated during workouts — then routine winter blanketing makes sense.
Horses need to stay active all year long. Winter is no exception! Weather permitting, you should ride your horse outdoors throughout the winter season. If outdoor conditions are unsuitable for riding, an alternative is to provide access daily to a pasture or paddock.
When conditions are safe in the pasture or paddock for both you and your horse, lunging exercises can be considered for an added workout.