30 Winter horse-care hacks
Use these tips and tricks to meet your cold-weather horsekeeping challenges head-on.
There’s to love a about lot horsekeeping in months: the winter a lack of insects, adorably fuzzy ponies and sparkling snowcovered pasture scenes. Taking care of horses in the colder months has its challenges, though. Even if it never dips below freezing in your area, you’ll need to contend with your horse’s changing nutritional needs, housing requirements and more. Plus, you’ll have to keep yourself warm through it all. Nonetheless, with a little bit of preparation, you can manage whatever winter sends your way. Read on for tips and tricks for tackling the challenges of the season.
1.Many horses lose weight once pastures die back. For an easy keeper coming into the season with extra pounds, this can be a good thing. But you’ll want to keep an eye on an already lean horse, perhaps increasing his forage (hay) to replace the pasture he’s not getting. Feeding more concentrates (grain) can lead to digestive problems and “hot” behavior, though. If you can’t maintain a horse’s weight with increased hay alone, consider adding extra calories in the form of oil or a weight-gaining supplement.
2.Older horses who have trouble holding their weight in winter may lack the dental health to properly chew. For such horses, a
chopped hay substitute or a complete pelleted feed may be an important part of maintaining their body condition over the winter months.
3.Increasing your horse’s hay ration in winter will help keep him warm from the inside out. Hay is a “slow burn” food for horses, meaning it is digested more slowly, generating metabolic heat longer than concentrates. If you’re worried about excess weight from increased hay consumption, look for a long-stemmed, high-fiber grass hay that is good quality—meaning it’s not dusty or full of weeds—but lower in overall nutrition and calories. Ideally, a horse kept in a cold climate will have hay in front of him continuously.
4.Use a child’s saucertype sled to easily pull hay across snow-covered pastures to horses.
5.Warm bran mashes are a winter tradition beloved by many horsekeepers. Nutritionally speaking, however, bran isn’t the best choice, and such an abrupt change in your horse’s ration can lead to colic. Skip the bran and simply add hot water to your horse’s regular feed to make a mash. Your horse will appreciate it just as much.
6.A healthy horse in good weight with a thick winter coat may not need a blanket to stay warm, even in the coldest weather. Horses can maintain their body temperature in sub-zero climates if they have shelter from the wind and heavy precipitation. This ability varies among individuals, however: One horse in a herd may need a blanket while others are perfectly comfortable without.
7.Check the fit of blankets each year, even if the horse has worn that particular garment before. Changes in a horse’s weight and fitness can alter a blanket’s fit. A blanket that is too small can pinch or rub painfully, while one that is too large can become an entanglement hazard as it slips out of place. For a quick
check of a blanket’s fit, slip your hand between it and the horse’s withers. Your hand should slide in easily. Do the same type of check at the shoulders and over the hips. Finally, watch the horse graze while wearing the blanket to make sure he can lower his head fully without a chest buckle pressing painfully into his skin. Adjust the belly straps so they hang no lower than three inches below the horse.
8.Even properly-fitting blankets can lead to hair loss on a horse’s shoulders from friction as the horse walks. Stretchy Lycra “underwear” garments worn beneath blankets can help prevent this.
9.If you have multiple blankets of different weights for your horse, consider marking them according to the appropriate conditions for their use. For instance, you can sew a brightly colored patch on the shoulder of each blanket marked with the temperature range for which it can be used. You could also attach a luggage tag with the same information to a buckle. Such easily referenced information will make blanketing easier for barn help or friends lending a hand.
10.If temperatures fluctuate, blanket for the anticipated high of the day. A horse who sweats underneath a tooheavy blanket can become dangerously chilled when the temperature drops again.
11.Remove blankets daily, or at least every other day, to get a good look at the horse underneath. Skin diseases, weight loss and even injuries can go unnoticed under blankets and will be more difficult to deal with if they are not discovered right away.
12.The risk of impaction colic spikes during winter months. This is due to a confluence of factors, including a decrease in water consumption and physical activity and an increase in dried forage intake. You can counteract these by making every effort to keep your horse well hydrated and moving throughout the season. Do this by ensuring he has unfrozen water available at all times and that automatic waterers are always functioning properly. Also, turn him out for as many hours as possible each day. If weather or footing conditions make turnout unsafe, replace that activity with daily riding or hand-walking.
13.Keeping a horse in a closed-up barn wreaks havoc with his respiratory system. Dusty air will trigger heaves in susceptible horses and challenge the immune systems of even the healthiest members of your herd. If your horse spends time indoors this winter, make sure the barn is well ventilated. This may mean opening windows and aisle doors on even the most frigid nights and using extra blankets on the horses. If you can smell ammonia or see any signs of condensation on barn surfaces, the air is too stagnant to be safe for horses.
14.Horses with arthritis will feel a bit “creakier” in the colder weather—a phenomenon you may be familiar with yourself. If you’re not already feeding one, now may be the time to discuss adding to his diet a supplement designed to support joint health. You’ll also want to plan in extra time to warm-up before each ride, taking it slow until you feel your horse loosen up.
15.Check the labels of any medications you have stored in unheated areas. Many cannot withstand cold temperatures and may become ineffective, if not harmful, if they freeze. Store cold-sensitive products in a climate-controlled area of the barn or keep them in the house over the winter.
16.Deep snow is not much trouble for a fit, healthy horse to navigate, but it will be physically tiring. Eventually, horses will trample paths between important locations—hay, water, shelter—and stick to them until the snow melts. Turning the horses out when the snow begins to fall will give them a head start on this process and prevent them from having to wade through deep drifts to reach a needed resource.
17.If you find ice in your turnout area, carefully walk out onto the surface and stomp your feet. If your weight breaks the ice, your horse will be fine on it—his hooves will break right through to firmer ground below. Thick ice, however, can cause a horse to slip and fall. If there is unbreakable ice in your turnout area, consider an alternative space, such as an indoor arena or another pasture that gets more direct sunlight, until it melts.
18.Muddy fields that are churned up then freeze become a gauntlet of potentially hoof-twisting hazards, especially for older or arthritic horses. If this describes the areas near your gates or waterers, look for an alternative space to put your older horse until the ground thaws. A longerterm solution involves “hardening” the area against mud using gravel or soil-stabilizing geotextiles.
19.If your horse manages to get marooned on a patch of ice, you’ll need to act quickly, but with extreme care. If the horse will remain calm as you work, you can use a pickaxe or shovel to break up the ice to clear a path to safety. Driving a tractor across the surface may also work. If you can’t break the ice, try laying down a thick layer of used bedding to walk the horse over. Lead him with a long longe line, however, so you can keep clear if he slips. If the horse is down on ice, get help immediately. Call your veterinarian and any friends with experience in these situations. You can use ropes to carefully pull the horse to firmer ground.
20.The key to keeping yourself warm in the saddle during winter is to dress in layers. For the base layers, choose a fabric that wicks moisture away from your skin. Most activewear sold today has this capacity. For outer layers, look for fabrics that keep you warm but “breathe” to release moisture as necessary. If you’re riding, make sure your topmost layer has a zipper; you can’t pull a solid sweatshirt off over your helmet if you get too warm during a ride.
21.Frozen toes are a misery while you’re riding. Treat yourself to some terrific socks this year. You’ll want them thin enough to allow “wiggle room” in your boots, but made from a fabric that is warm and breathable. Serious hikers are fanatics about socks. Eavesdrop on their online discussion for suggestions. If temperatures are regularly below freezing in your area, you may also want to invest in a pair of insulated winter riding boots.
22.A fleece cooler draped over your horse’s hindquarters, pulled around your waist then tucked under your legs can help keep you both toasty during warm-up and cooldown periods.
23.Be aware of the state of the footing you’re riding on. Fast work on frozen ground can lead to hoof bruising and significant footsoreness. Hard, frozen ground “rings” as a horse trots or canters across it, rather than producing a more muffled sound. When footing is frozen, stick to a walk.
24.Leaving a hot, sweaty horse standing in a cold stall can lead to him catching a chill, so after a hard ride in winter, you’ll need a thoughtful cooling-out routine. Walk for the last 10 or 15 minutes of the ride to allow the heat built up in his muscles to dissipate. Dismount and loosen the girth, but don’t remove the saddle until you have a wool or fleece cooler on hand to toss over the damp area immediately. Walk him to prevent his muscles from cramping, checking underneath the cooler periodically to see if he’s dry. Rubbing the area with a towel briskly can speed up that process. Once you are sure his body temperature has returned to normal and that he’s dry, you can put his regular blanket on him and turn him out or return him to his stall.
25.Hooves grow more slowly in winter than at any other time of the year. Why this happens isn’t clearly understood, but it’s likely related to reduced activity and circulation. Defects and cracks may take longer to grow out. This makes it even more important to set and keep a regular schedule of farrier visits during the winter.
26.Frozen ground can be as unforgiving as concrete and lead to hoof bruises. A horse with a bruise may be slightly “ouchy” or outright lame and you may not know the cause until his sole is pared down to reveal a telltale dark spot. Hoof pads can help existing bruises heal faster and prevent new ones from forming.
27.When wet snow packs into shod hooves, it melts slightly when it touches the sole, then refreezes against the cold metal of the shoe. Over time, this process can lead to the development of “ice balls” in the center of each hoof that leave the horse teetering precariously with every step. Popular home remedies to this problem include coating the hoof with cooking spray or petroleum jelly, but a much more effective solution is to apply specialized anti-snow pads that pop accumulated snow from the hoof with each step.
28.Body clipping makes grooming and cooling out much easier in the winter months, but with that convenience comes an extra burden of care. Clipped horses require blanketing to replace the natural protection against the cold you’ve removed. That’s why it makes sense to remove only as much hair as needed. For horses who are ridden to a sweat only once or twice a week, a trace clip that removes hair from the chest and underside of the neck might make sense. A horse with a trace clip can still be turned out without a blanket.
29.Bathing may be out of the question in winter months, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tackle tough stains on your horse. Try hot toweling for a deep clean: First, fill a bucket with water heated to the point you can just stand to dip your hand in it. Submerge a clean towel in the water, then wring it thoroughly. Rub the hot, damp towel on the target area of the horse, switching to a clean portion of towel as needed. This will remove dirt without soaking the horse. Re-dunk and wring the towel as it cools down. Working in sections, you can clean an entire horse this way. Just cover the horse with a cooler as you work.
30.To clean a grungy tail in winter, saturate the hairs with silicone spray and separate them by hand. Remember, you can use water to bathe the bottom of the tail, below the bone, even in cold weather.