Owning a horse is a privilege and a joy for many people and those who are lucky enough to own one will normally find that they develop a strong attachment to this large pet that they can ride and play with.
However at the same time owning a horse is also a responsibility, and as their owner you are tasked with taking care of this large, powerful but ultimately vulnerable creature. During winter this job is even more complicated and even more important that before. Here we will look at how to go about making sure your horse gets all the care it needs during these harsher months.
During the winter a horse does not get to come in from a cold unlike people and that means that they need extra care to stay healthy. Fortunately horses are very resilient to the cold and are actually more stressed as a rule by the heat. However that said it is still important to keep them warm and well fed and even moreso when conditions outside are harsh.
Diet and Medication
Various things can make life easier for you and your horse during winter, and by addressing various other issues you can prevent complications during the winter months. For instance you should make sure that your horse is free from parasites, that they are fully immunized against colds and diseases and that they are in good flesh. Take the time to deworm your horse and get check ups from the vet before going into the winter and this will serve as an investment – helping you to avoid needing more expensive costs during the rest of the winter. A great way to make sure you stay on top of this is to organize a health program with your vet that you can stick to.
Food and Hair
Bear in mind that just because it is cold for you that does not mean that it is necessarily cold for your horse. Horses have much thicker skin than us as well as very handy layer of fur to keep them warm. However we can still help this further by ensuring that our horses don't lose weight during the winter when they will need that extra layer of fat the most to insulate them. To do this try slightly increasing the amount of feed you give your horse to make sure that they stay nice and full over winter.
As for their winter coat, this is their first and most vital line of defense against the cold. As such you should make sure that you allow it to grow more than in the summer and this will help it to thicken and to get longer (you should also leave the hair in its ears and around the fetlocks). This will happen partly naturally as your horse enters the winter months. At the same time the natural oils in a horse's coat are essential for helping snow, ice and sleep to slide off of it. To make sure your horse maintains this natural sheen you should make sure that your horse gets a full and balanced diet. Just like humans the nutrition in their diet is essentially for glossy and full hair.
Of course give your horse somewhere to get shelter when it is outside to avoid them getting cold in winter. This is important as a horse's coat is designed to naturally be able to fluff out which provides extra insulation in the form of trapped air between the hairs. If the horse's coat is wet then it will lie flat and not be as warm (and the water will use up the heat energy from the horse's skin to evaporate). If you are leaving your horse out to graze then, make sure there is somewhere it can take shelter should the rain start.
If you use a three sided shed on your pasture then you should make sure that the open side is facing away from the wind. You should also make sure that there is at least 80 square feet of room for each mature horse. At the same time you should check drainage to ensure that water does not run into the shed, and lookout for leaks.
Stalls/stables are not always necessary and they can sometimes cause problems. For instance many stall owners struggle with dampness, ammonia, poor ventilation and other things which can cause respiratory problems. Likewise any illnesses are likely to spread more quickly. To avoid these problems you should make sure that your stall has good ventilation allowing air to easily get in and out even when the stall is closed. Prepare your stable with lots of bedding and fresh food, and make sure to keep it properly clean all year around.
A stabled horse might benefit from blanketing which can add an extra layer of warmth. Only do this while your horse is in the stable or it can come off and get dirty, or absorb water and prevent the horse's hair from doing its job properly. While blanketed indoors, make sure to take the blanket off regularly and to brush the horse down. Make sure that the blanket is very warm or it will do more harm than good by preventing the horse's hair from fluffing. It is a common mistake to think that your horse will need a lot of extra warmth during the winter months and so to shut them in the stall and close off any air while covering them in blankets. While this is well meant remember that horses are different from people and that good quality fresh air is actually more important for them than a lack of cold wind, and that their coats are designed to be great insulators on their own. The only scenario in which heated rooms are necessary is where newborn foals are present.
Assessing Your Horse's Temperature
Of course knowing your horse's temperature is a good way to know whether you need to take measures to make them warmer or whether they are warm enough. Fortunately there are several ways to estimate how warm your horse is. One method is to feel the condition over your horse's ribs. Here there is less fur and that will allow you to assess their skin temperature, as well as to look for any signs of weight loss. In terms of body fat, you should not be able to see your horse's ribs, but should be able to feel them when you run your fingers on the rib cage.
Horses will add body fat from their front to their rear and from the top to the bottom. Thus, evaluate their necks and their tail heads to look for deposited fat. As soon as you notice your horse losing weight, start to increase its diet. Likewise though do not allow them to become overweight which will cause health conditions in itself.
Another trick many horse owners use to evaluate the temperature of their horse is to look at their ears. If the ears are cold then chances are that the horse is cold. You may also be able to see your horse visibly shivering which is a sign that you need to rapidly address the issue – get them inside and use a thick blanket to keep them warm.
There are some other concerns when you keep a horse during winter. One such concern is that their water can freeze over and thereby cause them to be unable to drink. Fortunately there is an easy way to solve this problem which is to leave a ball of some sort floating in the water which will prevent it from completely freezing over. Where possible it is recommended to provide horses with warm water at around 45-65 degrees Fahrenheit. Studies suggest that this increases water intake.
You should also make sure to check the condition of the grass and the ground, to make sure that they have a healthy diet available and to make sure that it is not too slippery for your horse. Horse's are large heavy animals and so a fall can be very dangerous and especially if the ground has hardened due to frost.