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Winter Horse Care Hacks

Reprinted from Guest Post by Claire A. Dague

Every year, equestrians in the northern half of the world brave the cold, wind and snow to get to the barn and care for their horse(s). Whether you board your horse or have them in your backyard, the winter months can feel unbearable at times. Use these simple winter horse care hacks to help you get through winter.

Winter Horse Care Hacks

Last week here in Ohio was particularly challenging with a polar vortex swirling, creating outrageously cold temperatures. I had to get strategic with my riding schedule (for the horse that’s boarded with my trainer) and for the two I have at home, mucking, feeding and turning out in the subzero temperatures was quite the challenge.

So here are a few winter horse care hacks that I use for managing horses in freezing temperatures:

Hay, Hay and More Hay

When the temperatures drop, always feed plenty of hay.

Fiber is the single most important part of your horse’s diet and keeping their digestive system working creates an internal heating system for your horse.

For hard keepers, or horses who struggle to keep weight on, feeding higher quality hay with alfalfa can be a huge help.

But what do you do about easy keepers? If you need to watch your horse’s weight, feeding an endless supply of hay isn’t possible.

Providing first cutting, round bales of mostly grass hay in pastures throughout the winter can be a perfect way to help address both hard and easy keepers. My “air fern” can eat off the round bale at his leisure and then I supplement with just a few flakes of the good stuff morning and evening when he comes in to eat. This way, he is getting the benefit of added fiber, without the extra protein. Elliot, my older gelding, can also eat at the round bale but when he comes inside to eat his grain, he gets extra flakes of a higher-quality alfalfa hay to help keep his weight up.

By adding the round bale to your pasture, your horse(s) get the benefit of munching all day long, decreasing the chance of colic and keeping their body temperature warmer.

Please note: if your horse eats off a round bale, it is smart to make sure they get their botulism vaccines. Please consult your veterinarian for their best recommendation on this and other vaccines.

Pros and Cons of Winter Turnout

While people find temperatures around 15°F uncomfortable, your horse is well-equipped to handle time outside in the colder weather. In fact, limiting your horse’s time outside during the winter can increase the risk of colic and worsen conditions such as arthritis. For that reason, restricting turnout in the winter because you think it may be too cold is not a good idea.

However, due to the weather, some days its just not safe to turnout – especially in icy conditions. Always use your best judgement and walk the pastures yourself if you have any doubt.

Keep the Barn Closed

When the temperatures get this cold, sealing up the barn is crucial. Take some time to inspect doors and windows to find places that are letting in the cold air. Rolled up towels or straw bales are easy ways to seal off cold air coming into the barn through the bottom of doors or windows.

Closing doors directly behind horses during turnout, and limiting which doors are used for humans, also helps regulate how much cold air is getting into the barn.

Just remember, sealing up the barn combined with limited or no turnout means your horses are spending long hours in a small stall. Make sure you are cleaning your horse’s stall at least once a day when they have to stay inside to ensure not only a dry and warm place to rest, but also to reduce allergens due to decreased ventilation (which can cause respiratory issues for some sensitive horses).

Don’t forget: in the snow, horses with shoes on will accumulate more snow in their hooves, creating an icy “snowball” which can sometimes cause discomfort. Check your horse’s hooves after turnout and pick them out when needed. You can also ask your farrier about “snow pads,” which are special pads added to your horse’s shoes that cane help reduce this issue.

Water and Heated Buckets

While forage from pastures contains higher levels of moisture, hay and grains contain much lower moisture levels. What this means is that your horse is not getting as much water naturally during the winter months.

It is so important to find ways to ensure your horse has drinking water at all times, as decreased water intake can lead to dehydration and impaction colic. Luckily, there are lots of options to help with that – from floating deicers for water troughs, to heated buckets and automatic waterers with built-in heaters.

While many automatic waterers and heated buckets have built-in heating components, these heaters still need checked daily to ensure they are working properly. For water spigots, heat tape and heat lamps work well – just make sure you are always cognizant of fire hazards.

Have Sand and Salt Handy

Keeping walkways as ice-free as possible is crucial for horse barns. While eliminating ice all-together is near impossible, especially for large facilitates, working to keep high-traffic areas that the horses use deiced is important.

Having salt on-hand to spread over walkways when ice and snow accumulates is a good idea. For really cold snaps, consider using magnesium chloride instead of regular salt, which can stop working in temperatures below 15°F. Not only does magnesium chloride work down to temperatures of -20°F to -25°F, it’s also much more environmentally friendly (though it is quite a bit more expensive than salt).

Similarly, keeping a bucket of sand nearby is a good idea. Spreading sand, especially on icy driveways when unloading horses from a trailer, adds much-needed traction. Additionally, sand can even be helpful if your truck and trailer gets stuck. Spreading sand around the tires will give you enough traction to get out of the slippery spots.

To Blanket or Not?

This is a hot topic and every equestrian seems to have different advice. Personally, I grew up blanketing, but more recently I’ve changed the way I blanket.

Horses that are underweight, very young or very old, or that are body clipped, get blankets. Healthy, middle-aged horses do not get blanketed.

Here’s why: horses regulate their internal body temperature naturally, through their coat and skin, and as long as they are provided with adequate shelter, fiber and water, many do just fine without blankets in the winter.

Ultimately, blanketing is a personal choice, but don’t let your barn buddies make you feel bad if you choose not to blanket your unclipped, healthy (and maybe slightly chubby) horse.

Riding in the Cold

Low temperatures don’t mean you must forgo riding your horse. However, if you choose to ride in the cold, extra care must be taken to keep your horse safe.

Make sure to increase your warm-up and cool down times. If your horse is body clipped, take advantage of quarter sheets during your workout and coolers as you take your horse to and from the ring.

Modify your horse’s workload as necessary to keep him from sweating if possible, as it can be dangerous for a wet horse to be in the cold air. If your horse does break a sweat, make sure to use a cooler to wick away sweat after your ride and do not re-blanket him or put him away until he is completely dry.

Finally, horse horses that have a little bit of extra energy (perhaps from less turnout), your rides may be more productive and happier if you do a quick lunge or groundwork session before you mount up.

Power Through

While many times it will seem as if winter will never be over, spring and warmer weather will eventually come! Equestrians are resilient and by taking advantage of these winter horse care hacks, you can make the cold winter months bearable (almost 😉).

Happy Riding, Claire A. Dague

This is a guest post by hunter/jumper rider Claire A. Dague. A law student in Central Ohio, Claire has shown on the local A and B circuit in both hunters and jumpers. She currently owns three horses: Elliot (retired Appendix jumper), Mingo (12-year-old OTTB jumper) and Tucker (8-year-old OTTB) who live at home on her grandfather’s farm.

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