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Winter Care of Horses



Winter can be very hard on animals who have to live and survive out of doors. It is our responsibility to minimize this stress on the animals in our care. The most critical areas to consider are housing, nutrition, and exercise.

Horses are very well adapted to the cold and for the most part would rather be outside. Their coats provide excellent water shedding by the outer guard hairs and insulation by the undercoat which traps air against the skin to keep them warm. Thus in the rain, the outer coat is wet but the skin is dry. It is important to provide shelter against the wind. A lean-to, run-in shed, or thicket of junipers is sufficient. If this is not available, a turn-out rug would be nice during cold rainy periods. Horses that have had their hair clipped off for ease of cleaning and to prevent overheating must of course be blanketed to replace the natural coat. If horses are brought indoors be sure to provide ventilation. It is healthier to be in a cold airy barn which protects them from the wind than standing in a tight stall breathing ammonia fumes. This is especially true of foals.

The biggest problem with winter and horses is related to nutrition. In the fall, most of the nutrients leave the leafy grass and go into the roots. This leaves a tough fibrous residue which can provide some nutrition but usually not enough. It is especially hard on older horses with worn teeth and less efficient digestive tracts. They can neither grind the tough plants, nor properly absorb them from their intestine. It is often difficult to tell how thin these senior citizens are due to their heavier winter coats. The other stress of winter is an increased use of calories to stay warm. This further drains the reserve of fat and requires more intake. To prevent this winter deficit, all horses should be supplemented with hay, as the pasture fades in the fall. For older horses who cannot effectively utilize hay, a complete feed which includes ground up alfalfa or beet pulp as a fiber source is recommended. Good quality round bales are an excellent way to provide hay for field horses. However, horses with respiratory allergies and horses with worn teeth should not be fed round bales. A weight tape as well as a manual palpation over the horse's ribs can help you pick up weight loss before you would notice it visually.

The other nutritional problem in cold weather is dehydration and subsequent impaction and constipation. Horses drink less water when it is cold or frozen. When the only food intake is dry hay and feed, the ingesta can become solidified in the digestive tract and require intensive medical care to get it moving again. Some turn out on pasture, a bran mash once a week, and providing free choice water which is over 45 degrees Fahrenheit will help prevent impactions. A stock tank water heater or adding warm water to the buckets two times daily should resolve the problem of frozen water. Do not expect animals to drink out of ponds and streams with ice and mud around the edges. Provide an alternative source of clean, warmed water.

The final concern in the winter is maintaining an exercise program. Horses which are in regular work should have their rations of grain decreased if bad weather prevents their regular work out. Failure to do this invites problems with tying up (azoturia or Monday morning disease).

A few facts, 60% of a horse's diet (by weight) should come from fiber sources such as hay, grass, or beet pulp. The digestion and metabolism of fiber creates more body heat in the process than the digestion of grain. Fat is an excellent source of calories for horses, preferably in the form of a vegetable oil. Corn will put weight on a horse but can also provide more readily available calories which can make them "high" or harder to handle.

As we look toward spring remember that those overweight horses and especially ponies need to be introduced to the lush pastures slowly.



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