Winter, with its cold temperatures, biting winds, rain/sleet, ice and snow can prove to be daunting and filled with the challenges of keeping our livestock (and ourselves) safe, warm and dry. Although we’ve probably read it before, it can’t be said often enough how important it is to provide your horse with enough fresh and ice-free water; plenty of high-quality roughage to eat; daily grooming and hoof care; dry living quarters (or at least a good shelter from the elements) with safe, non-slippery footing.
Contrary to what some may believe, it is not the concentrated feed, or grain, that keeps a horse warm in winter. Rather, it is the process of digesting the hay and roughage, whether products such as grass pellets/cubes or dried beet pulp, that keep his body warm. And when a horse is eating this type of food, his need for water increases in order to properly digest it — much more water is required in winter than during summer, when he is more dependent on tender green grasses.
Even the best-intentioned horse owner can become frustrated in her attempts to get her horse to drink enough during the winter — you know the old adage, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink!” Just imagine yourself outside in the freezing cold — you may be thirsty, but the thought of having to drink something that is icy cold isn’t very comforting! Fortunately, there are options that you can use assist in keeping water ice-free and more palatable to your horses.
Tank or trough water heaters can be used to keep the top of a watering trough ice-free; however if there are a number of horses using the trough, you’ll want to keep a close watch to be sure none are kept out or chased away from the water. Individual heated water buckets provide the stabled horse’s keeper the best way to monitor an individual horse’s water consumption, which is especially important when caring for older horses. A coil hidden below a panel in the bottom of the bucket provides just enough heat to keep the water from freezing — and rather than resulting in warm water, keeps the water at a more favorable tepid temperature. By refilling the bucket on a regular basis you will know exactly how much water is being consumed. A general rule of thumb is that most 1,000-pound adult horses should ideally drink at least eight to 12 gallons of water a day, depending on exercise….and that horses will prefer drinking water that is from 45-65 degrees Fahrenheit. If you find that your horse is not drinking enough, despite your efforts in keeping his water free from ice, you might add a couple of ounces of salt to his food ration, in addition to having a salt block readily available. Keep in mind that despite what some may believe, horses that are kept outside during the winter cannot consume enough snow to meet their water hydration needs, and having a trough or tank warmer for horses kept out-of-doors is extremely important.
When a horse does not drink enough water, he will eat less, even if he is offered good-quality feed or hay, as the inadequate amount of water consumed will result in the horse’s inability to produce enough saliva to help soften his food as he eats. If the horse eats less food than he requires, the loss of energy will cause weight loss, and will compromise his ability to stay warm in the cold weather.
In addition to consuming less food, the horse that does not drink an adequate amount of water can suffer from impaction colic. The horse’s digestion system requires a certain amount of water to process the foods he eats, as well as to pass along the fecal contents after digestion. Without enough water, this material will start to dry, and will be difficult to move through the intestines. The process of impaction does not happen overnight; but takes several days or weeks to occur, and can have dire results if not taken care of by a veterinarian. Horse keepers should watch for a decrease in manure output, or a change in the consistency of the manure, as well as monitoring the horse’s feed and water intake. If you notice any signs of lethargy, pawing or rolling, and you suspect a problem with dehydration or impaction, contact your veterinarian immediately.
Adequate high quality roughage will keep your horse in good body shape during the cold winter months, and in most cases, free-choice hay is the way to go. However, hay might not be the best option in all cases — elderly and aged horses, and those that have problems with their teeth, may have trouble consuming enough hay to maintain their weight and stay warm. If you notice your horse dropping wads of partially-chewed hay and grass, or find whole grains from your horse’s feed passing through into her manure, it’s time to have her teeth checked. Although most veterinarians can file your horse’s teeth, an equine dentist specializes in tooth care, and will do a more thorough job.
For horses with tooth loss or chronic tooth problems, hay substitutes become necessary. You can purchase hay cubes or grass pellets that will provide a good source of roughage, as well as dried beet pulp in different forms. However, these products will need to be wet down sufficiently in order for your horse to eat without fear of choking. In the cold weather we like to give our horses (both old and young) grass pellets moistened with lots of very warm water to start and end their day. The pellets help provide necessary roughage, fill their stomachs without adding too many calories, and serve as a medium in which to mix their herbs/vitamin/mineral supplements; and they both seem to look forward to their warm ‘mash’, especially on the coldest days.
If your horses are kept out-of-doors, your daily chores become even more important. You’ll need to be more diligent in their grooming, and check for potential problems. Their haircoat is what protects them from the elements; watch for cuts or other wounds and treat them immediately. Brush away burrs or any items that may become stuck in their manes, tails or winter coat, as well as dried mud or manure, in order to keep the hair fluffy and insulating, rather than matted down. Pay attention to your horse’s feet; in most cases, horses that are turned out in winter will not need shoes, but will still need their feet checked regularly. Ice and snow may become balled up under your horse’s hooves, especially if he is wearing shoes, and make it difficult for him to walk; these should be removed as soon as you notice them in order to provide safe footing for your horse.
Spending at least part of the day outdoors is important to your horse’s good health, especially in winter. Regular exercise will keep him fit, and stimulate good circulation that will keep his bodily functions running smoothly, but be mindful that winter coats take longer to dry — don’t overdo the exercise in cold weather, or turn your horse out after a strenuous workout before making sure he’s completely cooled down. If you are not able to ride, lunge or otherwise exercise your horse, make sure he’s turned out for at least a couple of hours in a paddock or turnout area so that he can walk around and get some fresh air.
Not all horses have the luxury of a warm stall or barn in which to spend the cold winter nights; however a sturdy and dry shelter is of utmost importance. As long as your horse has had time to grow out a good winter coat, she should be able to winter out-of-doors provided she has a dry and sturdy place that provides protection from wind and rain, sleet and snow. Horses kept out of doors may in many cases opt to stay outside rather than coming in, as long as they can be sheltered from inclement weather. If you have more than one horse, be sure their shelter is large enough or, better yet, provide more than a single place to ensure that no horse is left out in the rain and snow.
Examine all turnout areas and make sure they offer a safe place for your horse, with good footing — and be mindful of places where water and ice can accumulate, especially around watering areas and the entrance and exits of your barn. Horses can slip on the ice and injure themselves almost as easily as humans can. Keep a supply of sand handy, in a barrel or a pile, to spread out where necessary for better traction, or to fill in puddles or holes that could become icy and hazardous. Utilize good drainage practices in places that tend to hold water, and repair leaky hoses or water pipes to prevent a problem from occurring. Keep stall doors and doorways free of obstructions that could be tripped over or broken and remove manure and soiled bedding at least once daily. Don’t allow manure and discarded hay to pile up under shelters and run-ins — keep these areas scraped and cleared on a regular basis to provide a welcome respite from winter’s chills.
Diligence in your management practices of providing adequate fresh ice-free water, high quality roughage, daily grooming; and shelter from the elements with good safe footing, will go a long way in keeping your horse healthy and happy during the long winter months.