Winter is here! As we prepare our homes and ourselves the question always arises as how to care for our horses during this season. Most horses can happily live outside all winter long if they are appropriately prepared. A multitude of factors come into consideration when deciding how to winter your horse.
Evaluate your horse each fall and decide if he is underweight, of average weight or overweight. If your horse is difficult to keep weight on or in the average category, then you may want to increase his caloric intake starting in August or September. This will allow him to gain some extra fat to help keep him warm over the cold months. As our horses’ hair coats get thicker and longer, it becomes increasingly difficult to accurately evaluate their weight. Throughout the winter months you want to run your hands along your horse’s neck, ribs and hindquarters weekly in an attempt to detect weight loss. If your horse loses weight over the winter months, you may need to discuss further options with your vet.
Shelter is an important necessity for horses living outside. Horses require some place to get out of the wind and the wet during the winter months. This place does not have to be a heated, air-tight barn. In fact, that can be detrimental in some cases. Instead a three sided shelter with the back wall facing the wind works well. Placement of this shelter is important to ensure that it actually functions as a wind break. It is also important that the shelter is big enough for all your pastured horses. If you have a bully in the group, then you may need a second shelter so all the horses are adequately protected.
The Hair Coat
Your horse’s healthy winter hair coat is an amazing natural blanket. Horses shed out their summer coats in August and September and start to produce their winter hair coat as the weather cools. A healthy horse who is allowed to acclimate to the dropping temperatures and grow a good winter coat is able to withstand temperatures well below freezing. In general the longer hair sheds the moisture and the hair closest to the skin stays dry and warm. However if the wet weather does manage to plaster down the horse’s hair, it is more likely that the horse will get cold and start to shiver in an attempt to maintain body heat. If this occurs you will have to consider protecting the horse by either bringing him inside or blanketing him. After a winter ride, rub the coat dry with a towel and be sure the horse is dry and comfortable before leaving them out in the pasture. If your horse spends part of his day in a relatively warm barn you need to watch his winter coat closely. If your horse doesn’t develop the appropriate winter coat he will be chilled when outside during the coldest part of the year.
As the temperature drops below zero in the winter time, it is important to provide your horse with adequate caloric intake. Hay is the one of the most important parts of the feeding routine. Roughage actually creates heat during the digestive process. Therefore allowing your horse to “graze” on hay through out the day/night allows them to maintain a more balanced body temperature. Grains do provide energy, but are quickly burned. So if there is a drastic drop in temperature it is important to increase your horse’s roughage until the weather warms up again. Older horses, which have trouble with chewing roughage, are better maintained in the winter on hay cubes or pellets in order to allow them to get the appropriate amount of hay. Adequate water intake is also an important and a commonly overlooked issue in the winter. Horses still drink a significant amount of water in the winter and it is imperative that they have access to water that is above freezing at all times.
How do you decide if your horse should be blanketed? If your horse is going to spend most of the time outside it is best to allow your horse to acclimate to the cooler weather without a blanket. This allows them to develop the appropriate hair coat to withstand temperatures below freezing. Frequently these types of horses do not require a blanket at all unless there is an extreme cold snap or a great deal of moisture that has wet down their hair coats and decreased their ability to insulate their body. However if you have a horse that you are keeping in the barn a significant amount of the day and/or body clipping or if you have an older horse that just doesn’t maintain adequate body weight, there is a fair chance that that horse will need a blanket when outside.
When blanketing your horse, you need be sure he is not sweat under the blanket. This will wet the hair and decrease its ability to insulate. This usually means that a blanketed horse will require 2 to 3 different weight blankets and you will need to change them as the temperature changes. A blanket used for chilly overnights will not be appropriate for a sunny day in the paddock. Also you want to be sure the blanket is not causing any abrasions or sore areas on the horse. Regular grooming helps decrease the chance the horse will rub or roll with the blanket on.
Older horses may require more care during the winter months. Generally it is a good idea to have their teeth checked, prior to the cold weather, to be sure they are able extract the nutrients from their feed. Some older horses may not hold their weight well and will require blanketing.
If you have questions about weight or how to winterize your horse please feel free to call the clinic.