How suddenly the weather has changed… from those long, warm and sunny days of summer, to the crisp and colorful days of autumn, and the challenges of getting all our chores done during the waning daylight hours.
The horses are still enjoying the green grass in their pastures but we are now glad that the barn is filled with hay, and have started to put out a few flakes during the cooler nights and mornings to supplement our older mare. Sabrina is now 31 and still doing well, though thin, and we are diligent in her care to get her comfortably through another winter.
Whether young or old, horses require extra attention heading into the long winter months. In our part of the country, the coming of autumn signals that no longer can they be turned out with minimal care and enjoy seemingly unlimited green pastures and fresh running water whenever they please. Once winter sets in, careful attention needs to be paid to the horse’s diet; amount of food, roughage and free-flowing fresh water, as well as and more time allotted to the daily chores of keeping the barn a safe and welcoming haven during the long cold weather ahead.
It’s a good idea to keep a record of your horse’s weight and body condition along with your veterinary records of immunizations and other notes. Some horse owners, especially those of older horses, will keep a pictorial record so that they can compare photos of their horses going into the winter from one year to the next. You should know your horse’s approximate weight — weigh tapes are fairly accurate as long as you are consistent with taking those measurements, and provide a good record of your horse’s body condition. Heading into winter, a thin horse will require careful managing of his body weight, as the cold and wet weather will require more energy just to maintain the horse’s current weight, as well as keep the horse warm and protected from the elements.
You’ll want to monitor your horse’s feed intake — especially if he’s spent the summer months eating free-choice grass. The most common feed given during the winter is hay. You’ll want to have an adequate supply of good quality hay on hand, as it is the process of digesting that roughage which produces heat that the horse uses to maintain his core body temperature. And as with summer grazing, your horse should have as much hay as he desires — feeding free-choice hay ensures that your horse will be satisfying his hunger and will be kept warm and in good condition.
As a very general rule of thumb, a horse will consume 2 to 2 1/2 percent of his body weight. (Of course this can vary if the horse is working, pregnant or lactating, etc.) You can provide more calories by slowly adding in grain to the diet.
When the outside temperatures dip below freezing, or if the horse is subjected to wet snow or rain and windy conditions, his energy requirements will increase. In order to keep warm and maintain his body temperature he may lose weight if not adequately fed — be sure to monitor your horse diligently during these conditions and increase his feed if necessary.
For an older horse, be sure she is on a diet of feed that she can chew and digest. We usually give our older horses beet pulp that is pelleted or shredded, soaked in warm water. It provides a nice comforting food on cold winter days, and also is easy for older teeth to chew and digest. Just be sure to read the label to see that the beet pulp is pure or whether it includes molasses, which can add carbohydrates and sugars to your horse’s diet. For a horse that is overweight and prone to Cushing’s Disease, you’ll want to stay away from any feed that is sweetened with molasses.
Be diligent in your observations to see that the hay is being consumed by your horse and not wasted — hay that is left over is not only costing unnecessary money due to the waste, but it may signal that the hay is not palatable to your horse. Check your hay supply often for signs of mold or heat, which can build up and combust, and cause a barn fire.
It is extremely important in winter to have an adequate supply of free-flowing water for your horse. For a horse that is stabled overnight or during the day, use of bucket warmers will ensure that he has enough water to keep properly hydrated. A horse cannot eat hay or other roughage without having enough non-frozen water to drink and help digest his food. If your horse is turned out, a trough warmer is a good investment — be sure to check the water supply morning and night to be sure it is free-flowing and not frozen. Horses cannot consume an adequate amount of water to stay healthy and properly hydrated from eating snow, and they will become chilled if they do not have access to non-frozen water.
Autumn is probably the best time to have your horse’s teeth checked, heading into the season when the horse will be most dependent upon dry hay and roughage to keep warm and in good condition. During a horse’s life, his teeth continue to grow, and in order to properly chew his food, it is important that his teeth are worn down evenly. Ideally, this will occur while grazing grass and other roughage; however often a horse’s teeth may wear unevenly and cause pain from sharp edges cutting into his gums, or even worse, an abscess. If a horse finds it painful to chew, he may bolt down his food and risk choking, or at the very least, swallow food that is not fully chewed that can cause digestive disorders, including colic. And those important nutrients you are feeding will not be absorbed if the food isn’t chewed properly — resulting in a loss of weight and condition — even if you notice that the horse has consumed all his feed! Ask your veterinarian if there is an equine dentist in the area; most veterinarians can check your horse’s teeth and grind or ‘float’ them to some extent; but a specialized equine dentist will do a more thorough job.
Another task to do for your horse prior to winter setting in is to schedule a visit from the farrier. If you are not planning on riding your horse in the snowy season, you may consider having his shoes removed and letting him go barefoot. Horses can do well when barefoot and have better traction in the snow; some believe that it’s good to give your horse’s feet a rest from shoes over the winter. However if this is not an option, there are shoes with studs that can be applied for better traction. And some farriers will recommend a pad to go under the shoe with a raised ‘ball’ to prevent snow from packing inbetween the sole and the shoe. If your horses will be confined in a smaller area, consider at least removing the hind shoes to prevent injury from kicking.
Hand in hand with good preventive foot care is checking to see that the ground around your barn and paddock is even and in good repair before winter. Level areas that are prone to standing water, adding gravel if necessary, and be sure the ground around your feeding stations and watering areas is also dry and level. Injuries can occur from horses slipping and falling on icy buildup, especially in these high-traffic areas. Use of gutters with downspouts to guide water away from the barn is helpful.
Your barn, stable or run-in shed should have a good solid leak-free roof. It’s important that your horses stay dry during the cold weather and have a place to get out from the elements. A run-in is fine as long as it is large enough to accommodate the number of animals you are protecting. Remember that there is always a dominant horse that will chase younger, much older, or weaker horses away from the best shelter, food and water — and be sure to check that your horses are all able to get under a dry shelter during rainy, snowy and windy conditions.
Be diligent with rodent control, and remove all sources of spilled feed and waste. Mice can get into even the smallest holes and contaminate your horse’s feed; store feed in rodent-proof bins or barrels with locking tops. In addition, rodents can ruin your leather tack if not stored properly, and can chew through electric cords and wires and cause a barn fire.
By recognizing your horse’s present condition and being diligent with monitoring her feed, water, housing and general care, you and your horse will be better prepared for the long winter ahead.