The groundhog saw its shadow on Feb. 2 and, as the old adage predicted, we will have six more weeks of winter — as we usually do here in upstate New York. With the freezing and thawing, ice and mud that occurs during this time of year, horse-keeping becomes more of a challenge.
These past weeks of light snow, strong melting rays of sun and below-freezing night temperatures have left some large areas of ice in the paddock behind our barn — surprisingly, as this past summer we did some preventive maintenance.
Having an elder horse who is not as nimble nor sure-footed as she used to be makes it even more important to keep the ice under control, especially when her younger stable-mate gets frisky and chases her around the paddock.
I found the easiest and most readily available solution to the icy areas was the use of our wood ashes and spreading them out on the ice. Each morning when the wood stove is stirred up for a new fire, the excess ashes are shoveled into an ash bucket. Every few days the bucket is taken outside and emptied into the ash can in front of the barn; the ashes are cold and are then available to use, often being distributed during the daily morning chores. It takes a lot of wood ashes to cover a large icy area, but when added regularly over the course of several days, it does help; but recently I found myself using up all the wood ashes from the ash can faster than we could refill it! It’s important to make sure that the ashes are completely cold before using them in a barnyard or other location where there are flammable items such as hay, grass, wood etc. nearby. Also note that if old lumber or wooden items such as wood pallets, etc. are ever used as a source of wood for your fire, there’s a chance that this type of wood might contain stray nails or metal staples — do NOT use these ashes in an area frequented by horses.
Another choice that some use to combat slippery footing is sand. Some town highway departments have a supply of sand available for their residents to use for their sidewalks and driveways. Sand can also be purchased in bags. It is preferable to kitty litter, which can get slimy when wet, and runs off a steep slope. Stay away from salt, as it is harmful to vegetation and can cause irritation to your horse, either through ingestion or by irritating the horse’s tender skin near the feet and pasterns. The runoff from using salt can enter trout streams and cause salinity problems as well.
We learned long ago that using a sled is much easier for distributing hay in the paddock rather than carrying the hay across icy and snowy areas. If it becomes too difficult to use a wheelbarrow for transporting barn waste to the manure pile after mucking out your stalls, try a large tub (the big plastic gardening tubs with rope handles work well) — we shovel the waste directly into the tub and pull the tub to the manure pile using a tow rope made from baling twine. Even a heavy tub will slide along on the ice and snow fairly easily.
When leading your horse to and from the barn in slippery conditions, try to encourage him to go on ahead — the only thing worse than having your horse fall on the ice is having him fall on you!
Check your horse’s feet for “snowballs” which may accumulate this time of year. In addition to being slippery and causing her to be unsteady on her feet, this condition can cause strain and damage to your horse’s tendons. You should be able to remove the snowball with your hoof pick by first tapping it and then prying it off. A small hammer may be necessary for very stubborn snowballs. Many horse owners opt to pull their horse’s shoes during winter to give their feet a ‘rest’ and also to provide better traction in snow and ice, as even shoes with traction (such as borium welds or tap-in studs) can cause difficult maneuvering in snowy weather when snow builds up under the feet.
Remember that providing your horse adequate unfrozen water is essential, especially in cold weather. An adult horse should consume at least 10-12 gallons of water a day to facilitate the digestion of his food and to keep his body properly hydrated. On nights when the temperature falls below freezing, consider carrying buckets of warm water into your barn if no running water or electric outlets are available. Your horse will appreciate the extra effort rather than having to rely on breaking through the ice for a drink. Horses prefers a water temperature of between 45-65 degrees F. Under normal conditions, the average horse will consume one gallon of water per 100 pounds of body weight per day; but as the water temperature decreases, horses will consume less water. A 1,000 pound horse may consume as little as 1-3 gallons of water per day when water temperature is as low as 32 degrees F — and less if he has to break ice in order to drink. We use plug-in buckets with electric warmers hidden in a false bottom that automatically turn on when the water temperature dips below 40 degrees to keep the water from freezing.
When horses are not able to drink enough water, they are at an increased risk for impaction colic. In addition, they will cease to continue eating hay or roughage which is so necessary to keep them warm in the cold winter months. During the cold weather, we provide additional water intake for our elder horses by feeding them a ‘warm mash’ — made up of a combination of their feed, some timothy grass pellets, oats and enough hot water to make a slurry. If you feed dry grass pellets or beet pulp you’ll need to wait until the water is absorbed and possibly add more.
For a horse that is reluctant to consume a wet meal you can mix in chopped apples or applesauce or even a spoon of molasses. We find that this is an excellent way to give oral medications to a reluctant horse.
Another early spring reminder is the care of your horse’s skin and haircoat. In cold and damp weather your horse will be exposed to muddy ground, which could make him a candidate for rainrot, scratches, and other skin conditions. Horses that love to lie down and roll in the mud will require extra time to be toweled dry, or curried with a rubber curry comb to allow the hair to dry so that the mud and dirt can be brushed off. March is the month “when ponies shed their hair” – and if you have a horse that has spent most of its winter outside, you will have lots of shedding hair to contend with! Although it is fairly easy to remove, do not over groom — they will still need the warmth from those heavy coats as there will be plenty of below-freezing weather ahead. Use your hands to do a quick once-over when the brushing is done to check for any lumps or bumps that might be present. An animal that is not groomed or examined on a regular basis can quickly develop a skin affliction that may be contagious to his stablemates. For this reason, it is important to maintain separate grooming tools for each horse as well as separate tack and pads, to prevent the spread of possible skinborne contagion.
While horses that spend time outdoors are protected in cold weather by growing thick winter coats, it is important to provide a good shelter or windbreak for wet and windy weather. The wind will ruffle the hair, which causes insulation loss and results in a chilled horse. A run-in shed is perfectly adequate as long as it is roomy enough for all your horses to get under; be sure to clean out the manure and waste that piles up on a regular basis.
And for horses kept indoors, pay special attention to his bedding. During inclement weather, even shed-run horses may spend more time inside. Remove wet and soiled bedding daily to prevent foot and skin problems. Be sure the bedding is dry and is deep enough to provide good cushioning for your horses’ legs and hooves. A properly bedded stall can act as protection against abrasion that creates hock sores and rough patches on the coat.
By using common sense and paying attention to the extra care your horse requires during the early spring, you will be rewarded by your horse’s good health and well-being.