Fall is in the air which means for most of us, it is time to dig out the horse blankets and dig in for the cold weather. It also means starting to set up seasonal care for our four-legged friends. Creating possible sacrifice areas for turn out, digging out heated water buckets or tank heaters and making sure our hay supplies are adequate. Oh the joys! In this article, I’ll discuss winter horse care including blanketing, riding and general care.
I admit it — I’m not a fan of winter. I tend to hibernate. Riding in the winter for me is difficult and time consuming. If your horse is shown or ridden consistently all year round, to keep your horse warm, a blanket will be required as will a cooler for warm up and cool down sessions. A show horse that is clipped will have a different routine than say one that is living in the back yard for the winter. Most of us, however, do not ride all that much in the colder months so our horses turn into furry yaks. When we do ride our long-haired beasts, it takes much longer to cool out before our horses can be safely put away.
If I ride when it is above freezing out (30 or below, count me out, thanks) I normally take about 15-20 minutes to warm up my horse with some lazy trotting, stretching circles before moving into the actual harder stuff such as hill work or lateral work. Horses need at least 15 minutes of active, steady exercise 4-5 times a week to maintain a basic fitness level. Less than that and you will start to notice a loss of muscle tone. The aforementioned hill work is ideal for building up the hindquarters as well as an elevated heart rate. If you have an indoor or access to one, that is ideal but if you are stuck riding outside like I am, try to avoid working on frozen ground or in snow that is more than 2 feet deep. Some sunny afternoons are just too inviting to not go out and enjoy a nice canter in the powder!
Clipped horses MUST wear a blanket in the winter, unclipped horses that are hard keepers can benefit from wearing one as well. The furry yaks that have winter off, normally can go without a blanket as the outer layer of hair fluffs up and insulates the horses provided shelter is given during high winds or rain.
Speaking of blankets, there are a multitude of designs, colors, weights and deniers. The choices and decisions to make can be mind numbing. Most owners have at least a water proof sheet and a mid-weight blanket, though some go crazy and get the heavy-weight blankets that make a horse look like a mummy.
If you have a horse that is turned out in a group or is rough on things, look for a “denier” of 1000 or over, preferable 1680, I have seen as high as 2000. The higher the denier number, the stronger the fiber which will resist tearing. Check underneath the blanket at least once a week — look for rub marks, coat quality and weight. It is very easy to just plop the blanket on and not check anything again until spring. Doing that though may lead to some nasty surprises come spring such as bacterial and fungal infections, hair falling out or a rack of bones, just gross.
Feeding and watering horses in the winter changes a bit more than in the summer months. Water still needs to be accessible 24/7 and hay should be as well unless your horse is a ridiculously easy keeper. I feed mixed grass round bales in the winter both as a time saver and the fact that it keeps hay in front of my horses all day long which is essential to keep weight up. Remember, horses are constant foragers and hay, not grain, is what keeps the horses warm.
I do not have a barn, only run-in sheds, so I use a sinking stock tank heater for my 100-gallon tank. The heater keeps the water just warm enough to not freeze over. Granted I have to plug it into the house outlet via a long extension cord and wrap the tank cord around the fence to prevent bored horses from playing with it, but it sure beats having to break through 3-4 inches of ice every morning!
It is a complete MYTH that horses can acquire all of the water they need by eating snow in the winter… make sure to always water your horses. Nowadays, 20-gallon water buckets have heaters in them now OR there are bucket insulators that at least slow down the progression of ice formation in your horses stall.
With horses stabled at night, it is very tempting to heat the barn thinking that you are helping your horse stay warm and cozy. The trouble with heating a barn is the respiratory issues that go along with it. Dust, ammonia fumes and mold all build up over time and with the barn closed up, and heat just adds to the troubles. It is far healthier and cheaper in the long run to just let the horses’ body heat warm up the barn.
Once the snow flies, people tend to either remove shoes or put studs on the shoes for traction. I keep mine barefoot all year round but that is just my personal preference. If you have shoes on your horses, beware of the dreaded snowball “high heels” that love to accumulate. As a preventative, I have sprayed the bottom of the hooves with any generic cooking spray, works like a charm! In deep snow, tails like to take on the appearance of a mangled mess so either wrap it up in a tail bag or liberally spray a silicone-based detangler on it and the hardened snow masses slide right off.
All in all, while the winter months can be a time consuming pain, there is nothing more beautiful than horses running in a field of fresh snow. Enjoy!