Winter care for horses is just as important as the care they receive during the other seasons. Harsh weather conditions, difficult footing, frozen water sources and change in nutrition are some of the different stresses horses experience during this time of year. Cold tolerance of most horses is usually good provided they are given shelter from wind and rain/wet snow, access to clean water, salt and good hay. If the horse has a good winter coat (fluffed and dry) and is in good body and health condition, it will be able to tackle very cold temperatures with ease, as in the case of my horse, Honeymoon (pictured), enjoying a sunny -50C day in NW Ontario. Horses that may experience problems and require special winter care are older or ill horses that are underweight, those with thin coats, poor muscle mass, poor hoof condition, or horses that may be stressed in any way.
To Blanket or Not? Most healthy horses do very good in very cold weather provided their coats are able to fluff and stay dry, and they are provided shelter from wind and moisture, which reduce the barriers to cold. If you clip your horse, or if your horse is thin and/or ill in anyway then yes blanketing is recommended. Many older horses have some form of health or weight issue, so consider blanketing them too. Choose blankets that provide protection and are still light weight for coats to fluff. Some disadvantages to blanketing are that they can shift and become potentially dangerous for your horse, the blankets need to be checked often for repair work and proper fit, and many horses may overheat in them which can be a serious problem. It is better to not blanket and let Mother Nature handle it unless there is a real good reason to do so.
Winter Feeding Tips:
Hay: One of the ways horses keep warm is by digestion. While most horse will do just fine without increasing feeding amounts, on the very cold days of winter (below -25C) it may be helpful to the horse to provide extra hay (up to 20% more) to meet the increased caloric needs of keeping warm. Hay should be of good to high quality, early to mid maturity, and should be the basis of your horse's diet. This type of hay holds water better in the digestive tract keeping your horse hydrated. It is also more palatable and less waste. Over mature and stemmy hay may cause intestinal impaction and hay bellies yet may be convenient to feed as "snack" food in small portions to keep a horse busy between meals.
Calories: Horses that require additional feed and calories are those that are thin or need to gain weight during the winter, hard keepers, and horses in work during the winter months. It is always best to gain extra calories by feeding more hay or adding alfalfa hay (up to 25% in the diet) or some concentrated feeds. Make all changes gradually to the diet and monitor the horse's body condition score every two weeks throughout the winter as thick winter coats can disguise thinness. Consider using high fat products (rice bran or oil) rather than grains as they are a safer way of providing additional calories and supply up to 2.5x the amount of energy compared to grains. Only a few grams/ounces are needed to get results.
Vitamins & Minerals: All horses should have access to salt blocks and loose salt, and have a portion feeding of a quality mineral vitamin supplement. Hay is never perfect and will deplete it's content of Vitamin A, D, E, and K within a short period of time. Also, many minerals may be deficient too. These are essential to a horse's health so consider a top dress of a good quality supplement. Consider getting a Page 2 of 2 hay analysis done to confirm it's nutrient composition and see if your horse is receiving the nutrients he/she requires (Protein, calories, minerals, carbohydrates). A visual inspection does not tell you what the hay contains, and it can often be misleading. Hay analysis is very inexpensive and easy to do - and yields amazing facts about your hay!
Water: Water is just as important as your quality of hay. A horse needs access to plenty of clean water, warmed preferably. Snow is NOT a replacement for water. If you cannot warm the water, then break ice at least twice a day. Water should be made available right after horses eat hay, it is common for them to drink then. Remember to plug any heated pails or tanks to a GFI receptacle for the safety of your you and the horse.
General Health Tips: Keep your horses vaccinated and check dental work for proper digestion; maintain proper parasite control; this is a good time to schedule a health exam by your veterinarian and discuss any issues; footing is often hard and unstable leading to sole abscesses, slips and falls - consider shoes with snow pads or if barefoot consider using boots for protection; if the temperatures are very cold, consider using horse socks to keep legs warm; pull shoes for the winter if not riding or horse is not being worked; check fencing often to minimize injuries; most horse do not require heated barns - use discretion if you do as the abrupt change in temperatures for horses (without blankets) can be unhealthy; keep paddocks as clean as possible as hardened manure can be difficult on horse's feet; keep dust to a minimum and air circulation to a good flow without drafts - do not "seal up" your barn when horses are inside!
Safety: Winter is often a huge fire hazard when horses are housed in heated barns or have poor electrical systems in place (ie. overloaded extension cords) - always have a safety plan in place, have smoke detectors and if possible a sprinkler system installed. Keep your barns always clean and free of cobwes and fire hazards (oil, gasoline), and keep a fire extinguisher & evacuation plan posted, readily available in case you ever may need it. Consider practicing a fire drill and know where to house your horses in a hurry if there should ever be a fire. Other safety tips include: clean your riding arenas of obstacles that may get hidden in deep snow; keep outside walkways and entrances clear of snow and make sure that an ambulance or fire truck has a clean path to the barn; inspect water lines; maintain electrical systems; and keep flashlights available in the event of an outside emergency at night.
Stay warm, stay safe and healthy to you and your horse this winter!
Happy Winter Everyone!
Healthy Horses. Happy Owners. Superior Results!
Superior Equine Health and Nutrition Inc.
www.SuperiorEquineNutrition.com ~ www.FeedMyHorse.ca ~ SuperiorEquine@gmail.com
The articles contained in this column are for the purpose of education and are not intended to take the place of proper veterinary care. They may be used in conjunction with such care to facilitate healing and maintain health of the horse.