Winterize Your Horse
By Carla Huston BES

As the cold months of winter close around us concern for our horse's health and condition becomes more pressing. Aspects of management that are most important are temperature maintenance, nutrition and hoof care. By monitoring these, keeping your horse in top health can be easy and fairly trouble-free.

First let us look at keeping your horse's body temperature maintained at the proper level. Evaluate his living qualities; is he strictly pasture-bound, or does he split his time between a box stall and turnout. For horses that spend much time outdoors a windblock or shelter is necessary, whether it is natural or manmade. If your horse is both an indoor and outdoor kind be sure to watch your barn temperature and your animal's hair growth. During the mild early months of winter allow your horse to develop his thick coat and acclimatize to the dropping temps. Avoid blanketing during this time; you really are not helping your horse by preventing him from experiencing the changing weather conditions. As the season progresses, again watch how you use blankets. If your horse has been properly acclimated, they will be unnecessary; your horse should stay comfortable as the temperature falls provided he has an area in which to escape the wind and wet. The danger with blanketing outdoor-bound horses is they tend to slip causing rubbing and sores, and may become damp themselves, serving to chill the horse, not warm him. When you do blanket be sure someone is available to monitor the horse - adjusting if necessary, and removing if they become damp or the temperature rises.

Next check your feeding system and ration. This will depend a great deal on the amount of work your horse gets and his stage of maturity. Let us assume that the animal is mature and under light work. This type needs about 1 percent of his body weight per day in good quality roughage. A well-cured grass hay will be sufficient. You may add a grain concentrate to this if your horse requires one. If your horse starts losing condition increase the energy content of his ration - not the protein. Energy is calories, and that is where the horse will draw the fuel to maintain body heat. A horse will drink six to ten gallons of water per day; it is crucial that he has a fresh and clean source at all times. Through the colder months this will mean chipping the ice out at each feeding, a tedious but essential task. Salt and trace mineral blocks are necessary year round, so make certain your's is accessible, out of the snow and slop.

Finally, don't forget your hoof care. Growth of the hoof wall is determined by nutrition, and during the cold months this goes toward maintaining body condition, not excessive hoof growth. Consequently, many owners believe they can forget the farrier until spring arrives. This is not in the best interests of your horse. The hoof will probably grow at least a small amount and need balancing to keep its proper shape and avoid any unnatural wear. Even more importantly, the farrier will check the sole for bruising that may occur on the hard ground and ice. Many of the abscesses that develop in early spring can be attributed to undiagnosed bruises that started in winter. It is well-worth the cost of his visit to keep those four feet in superior condition. If you do heavy winter riding and like to keep your horse shod consider having your farrier apply a snowball pad. This is a plastic pad with a ball in the center that prevents snow and ice from building around the shoe. Regardless if your horse is shod or not, clean his feet daily. When snow lumps develop, walking on them could cause some tendon and joint strain. If your horse is shod during the riding season and you like to keep the shoes on during winter too, consider pulling them for four to eight weeks. This allows the heels to rest (constant shoe wear contributes to contracted heels) and the hoof wall to thicken slightly.

Winter does not have to be a time of little riding and much work. Instead allow nature to progress and continue a top management program. Then saddle up and have a good ride.


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Updated: October 2005.