Horses cope fairly well when the weather turns cold or snowy with just a few provisions such as hay, shelter and water. However, sometimes we're unprepared for properly taking care of horses in the Winter. Our top 10 tips will help you and your horse make the most of the wintery season and have FUN whilst waiting for the springtime SUN!
1. Feed forage to help keep horses warm and promote healthy digestion
Access to forage helps keep horses warm naturally from the inside, relieves boredom, alleviates behavioural problems and reduces the incident of herd arguments and injuries. It also helps keep the digestive tract functioning by encouraging a healthy lymphatic system, reducing risk of ulcers and encouraging a healthy micro-biota in the hind gut which is essential for the horses well-being. If you're worried about overeating or weight gain, consider feeding from a robust small holed net such as Martsnets!
2. Provide shelter and rug ONLY if necessary
Horses are good at regulating their body temperature and cold weather can even encourage healthy metabolism and help horses stay healthy. A shelter from wet and windy weather is critical for all horses kept outside and it may be all that is necessary to stay warm. However, horses should be treated as individuals and some horses simply prefer to be stabled and/or rugged in inclement weather whereas others overheat in the lightest of rugs. I have witnessed particularly sensitive horses get laminitis as a result of getting stressed in cold weather!
If you do choose to rug - make sure it fits properly!
Always make sure rugs fit properly, do not rub or restrict/alter movement, and remove daily to check your horse thoroughly for wounds, etc. To prevent rug accidents, make sure rugs are in good working order and ensure straps are the correct length to avoid injury and rug damage… belly straps should be fitted a hands width between strap and belly and leg straps should not hang down and catch hocks when lying down or moving. We see many rugs which are incorrectly fitted causing gait issues and performance problems or are a potential accident waiting to happen.
3. Ensure a sufficient supply of fresh water
Horses often don't like to drink very cold water. Ensure there is a constant supply of water and offer plenty of fresh bucketed water at least twice daily with the chill taken off. Chronic dehydration can lead to systemic toxicity and may contribute to chronic disease states and even colic. We like to provide fresh soaked hay in very cold weather to encourage hydration.
Pinch up a fold of the horse's skin and then release it. Skin should immediately return back into its natural position. If the skin remains in a ridge from two to five seconds this could be a sign of mild dehydration.
4. Take extra care of vulnerable horses
Old, young and "metabolically sensitive" horses are more at risk from the effects of cold weather, mud and winter conditions. Ensure they have sufficient forage, room to rest and feed and access to water and shelter without risk of bullying and a comfortable place to lie down. If appropriate, provide stabling or a separate turnout area and ensure there is adequate bedding for comfort. Stress caused by competition for food, water or shelter can cause a loss of homeostasis in horses and lead to inflammation and pain. Get to know your horse and look for signs of stress or pain and act before it cascades to a more serious condition such as laminitis or colic. If your horse is on a livery yard, don't be afraid to discuss your horses requirements to ensure he is provided with what he needs to stay well. If you are not sure what your horse needs, consider our Holistic Wellness Consultancy Service and if appropriate, discuss the findings with your vet and team of professionals.
The picture above shows our alternative turnout system at our previous yard with option to separate vulnerable horses. There are rubber walkways, shelters and a variety of surfaces, horse safe fences and gates and feeding stations at various heights.
5. Protect hooves from bruising, excess wear and cold
Depending on your horses spectrum of usability rating (a hoof score used in applied equine podiatry indicating hoof health and performance capabilities), you may need to consider a change of environment for your horse in frozen or snowy conditions. Hard ground and compacted snow can cause bruising and weak or diseased hooves can suffer trauma if they are unused to hard, uneven surfaces. This ,as well as prolonged exposure to the cold can lead to inflammation, abscesses or even laminitis. Consider a change of environment, reduce turnout time or provide an alternative turnout area to protect vulnerable horses from trauma. Wet barefoot hooves wear quicker than dry hooves so consider the effect the environment has on the wear of your barefoot horses hooves during winter (see point 10. also). Grass mats, stable mats, straw or other bedding or boots with our without pads can be of help.
6. Consider alternative turnout for grass sensitive horses
Some horses just don't do well on grass and are often termed grass sensitive or grass affected (see https://www.calmhealthyhorses.co.uk/health-check/). The same applies to horses with chronic disease such as PPID/EMS/Cushings Disease and although laminitis is typically associated with fat ponies on spring and autumn grass, it is prevalent year round and can be triggered by eating stressed grass which is often high in sugars, stress hormones and minerals which create a loss of homeostasis. Winter is the ideal time to provide a period off grass to allow horses (and the grazing paddock) to recover somewhat. For grass sensitive horses, we recommend daily turnout on an all weather track or turnout area and a diet aimed at improving the overall health of the horse. For advice and instruction on improving your horses environment for health and longevity visit www.equiculture.net and in particular, their Equicentral System which Equiculture say...
(The Equicentral System) is a more responsible method of horse management developed for the needs of today's horse owner, their horses, and the land on which their horses live. A win-win-win system
We also recommend a hay based diet as haylage or wrapped hay tends not to support healthy digestion and can exacerbate many chronic health states. In addition, many horses nutritional needs are not met by hay and/or grass diet alone in the UK and supplementary feeding is usually necessary for health (see point 7. below).
7. Provide nutritional support for healthy weight and optimum homeostasis
This is true for horses in any season but in winter some horses tend to lose weight while some do very well on hay alone and don't need extra calories. The aim is to provide only what the individual horse needs for optimum body score and only that which is conducive to health. Browse our downloads page for articles on Glyphosate and feeding horses for more information. The needs of the horse may change depending on season and certainly on the environment the horse is exposed to - which can change on a daily basis! There are several good organisations which can provide recommendations for feeding the individual horse. We like Calm Healthy Horses for their individual; tailored approach and Thunderbrook Equestrian for their healthy hi-fibre feed range.
8. Pay extra attention to hoof health and foot balance!
We tend to ride less in the winter and go longer between shoeing/trim cycles and in addition, the horse is more at risk from infection from being exposed to mud or soiled bedding. Hooves don't like being wet then drying rapidly in moisture absorbent bedding and this can cause hoof cracks. However, regular hoof care maintenance and appointments with your hoof care professional can help mitigate winter hoof issues. We tend to see our equine clients for AEP consults or barefoot trims every 5 or 6 weeks in the winter. We encourage a proactive approach to whole horse hoof health and encourage owners to become more responsible for their horses health and soundness. We also provide advice on diet, infection control and exercise and can provide hoof boot and insole and orthotics advice too! Our favourite infection prevention and control products are Silvetrasol Thrush Ender, Art-Mud and Clean Trax (for deep hoof infections, cracks and abscesses).
9. Be prepared for inclement weather!
As horse owners, we appreciate how busy your life can be and this can sometimes feel worse in the winter when the nights become longer and yard duties take longer! Often we realise we don't have something until we really need it! Check out our winter check-list below to help you be prepared for the winter and all it can throw at you!
Check you have sufficient forage supplies - buy ahead and negotiate prices
Bulk buy bedding with a friend or buy when on offer and save £££'s
Buddy up with a horsey pay to share yard duties - spend more time doing fun stuff!
Empty hoses, insulate pipes and cover taps in freezing weather
Have water containers handy for carrying water when pipes freeze
Keep a kettle on the yard to warm horse water and keep you warm too
Have snack food handy on the yard - winter yard work burns fuel!
Have grit/salt on hand for the yard and walkways
Prevent poaching with grass mats and ground stabilizing mats
Ensure you have somewhere for field kept horses to shelter during bad weather
Book regular foot care appointments - it's easy to forget if your're not riding as much
Make sure you and your horses winter wardrobe is complete and in working order
Consider studs for shoes or boots - don't let weather spoil you and your horses exercise (see 10. below)
Have a winter health check for your vehicle and be prepared for snow and ice
Make sure you have battery operated torches and spare batteries
If you exercise or walk your horse on roads, etc make sure you both have reflective gear
10. Make the most of the winter months with your horse!
With long, dark evenings and a relaxed competition schedule, NOW is the time to spend some quality time with your horse without pressure to perform or when weather forces you out of the saddle. Here are some of our favourite winter activities:
Stable stretches and in-hand work are ideal winter activities for you and your horse. The benefits are many and include an improvement of posture as well as help develop your relationship with your horse. Check out www.horsesinsideout.com for ideas and resources or book a massage session with Beccy!
Consider going barefoot in the short or long term if your horse is shod. With less pressure to perform, you can concentrate on improving your horses hoof health. We highly recommend you seek expert advice and we can provide expert services on all things hoof related. We can even provide in-house rehabilitation if required!
Don't let ice, mud and snow slow you down! Barefoot horses are considered to have increased natural traction however, we you may want to consider hoof boots with studs! There are a wide variety of boots and studs available, We use Urban Horse for booting supplies and can provide booting advice during consults.
If you would like to learn more about our top quality holistic equine services, would like to maintain or improve your horses performance or would like to book an AEP consult with Beccy, please feel free to contact us today!
We also welcome feedback or comments so please feel free to leave a message.
Warmest well wishes,
Beccy Smith BSc(Hons) DAEP MAIEP EBW