Wintertime is almost on us. Short days mean you don't have as much time to get in the saddle and ride. And, unless you live in the farthest southern climes, your horse faces cold, snow, sleet, rain, and wind. He grows a protective coat to fend off the elements, but what should you do to help keep him warm and comfortable? Here, I'll give you a rundown of winter-care strategies designed to help you maintain his body condition and energy, so when spring rolls in, he'll be ready to hit the trail again.
You can help your horse get through winter months by maintaining his health year-round. Following is an at-a-glance maintenance schedule.
• Deworm. Deworm your horse every two months, even during winter. Your horse always carries a parasite load, so continual deworming reduces the chance of re-infection from manure or contaminated feed. Deworming also helps him to better digest his feed, reducing the risk of colic and weight loss.
• Vaccinate. Cold nights and warm days with widely varying temperatures increase your horse's susceptibility to infections. Vaccinate your horse for viral infections, such as equine influenza and rhinopneumonitis, and give him a booster every three or four months to maintain immunity.
•Check his teeth. Before winter hits, have your vet check your horse's teeth. Your vet may need to float (file) sharp points on the teeth edges; such points can cause mouth soreness. Good dental health helps your horse chew and digest his feed so he can absorb all the necessary nutrients.
Tip: A furry winter coat can hide a gaunt frame. Periodically run your fingers across your horse's midsection to make sure he's still holding flesh on his body. You want to just be able to feel the last two ribs with a light run of your hand across his rib cage.
Good-quality forage helps your horse stay warm in winter: As microbes in his large intestine ferment the feed, it'll create heat from within, acting kind of like an internal combustion chamber. Here are some more winter-nutrition tips.
• Estimate his normal requirements. An average adult horse needs l½ to 2 pounds of hay for each 100 pounds of body weight every day. (That's 15 to 20 pounds of hay per day for a 1,000-pound horse.) At least 50 percent of your horse's feed should be in the form of roughage (hay) rather than grains. Fiber from hay promotes your horse's gut health, reducing the chance of colic, laminitis (founder), and nutritional imbalances.
Tip: When you estimate daily hay consumption, account for any loss due to wind, spreading, and/or trampling.
•Feed for warmth. Your horse's nutritional needs increase about 5 to l0 percent for every degree below freezing. During cold snaps, provide good-quality grass hay free choice, rather than loading him up with more grain. Over time, grain can put fat on his frame (below), but otherwise does very little to keep him warm.
Tip: Protect your haystack and feed-storage areas from excess moisture to ward off mold, which can cause respiratory problems. Also protect your hay from sun scorch to preserve its vitamin A content.
•Add calories, if necessary. If your horse needs more calories to maintain his condition, supplement grass hay with a small amount of alfalfa hay and/or grain. Oats offer greater fiber content, but corn provides twice as much energy as an equal volume of oats. You can also supplement your horse's diet with vegetable oil or rice bran to add fat and calories.
• Provide fresh water. Provide your horse plenty of fresh, clean, and wet (ice?free) water at all times. If he stops drinking water, he'll be at risk for impaction colic. He also may not eat his daily feed ration. He needs at least 5 to 10 gallons of water per day in winter-more if he's exercised.
Here are a few tips to keep your horse warm and comfortable on those long, cold winter nights.
•Turn him out. If you don't ride much during the winter, leave your horse turned out to pasture so he can maintain muscle tone, and to help keep his joints moving and lubricated. Moving around will also help keep him warm. Provide a loafing shed for protection from winter storms. When your horse stands in pasture, butt to the wind and snow, head down, not moving, his metabolism works hard to keep him from freezing. A shelter will not only help keep him comfortable, but also will help him maintain his body weight.
• Provide ventilation. If you do bring your horse into your barn in winter, make sure it has adequate ventilation. If he's cooped up in a dank barn with still air, he'll be at risk for respiratory conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly known as heaves. Also, ammonia from urine may irritate his airways, leading to coughs and potential infections. Consider temperature extremes if your horse leaves a warm barn to be ridden or turned out-the shock can compromise his immune system.
• Blanket with care. If you're inclined to blanket your horse, be consistent in doing so. Once you start blanketing, you're committed throughout the inclement season, as it thwarts winter coat growth. If you leave the blanket off, your horse will then be susceptible to cold and wetness. It's often better (and a lot easier) to let Mother Nature do her work by building your horse's winter haircoat.
•Ward off chills. When you ride hard and put your horse up as the sun goes down, his damp haircoat causes him to chill while also removing the insulating loft that normally traps warm air beneath his fur. Cover him with a wool cooler or a wool-lined blanket for a few hours until his coat has dried. Then remove the blanket, and brush out his coat to restore the loft. If you have the time and inclination, you can also use a hair dryer to speed the drying process.
• Consider a winter clip. If you work your horse frequently during winter, a winter clip can help your horse cool down and dry out. A blanket clip removes hair normally kept under a blanket, except for where the saddle will lie (for protection from saddle sores). A trace clip removes hair from areas where he typically sweats the most.
Help His Hooves
Winter can present special problems when caring for your horse's hooves. Here are a few tips to help you promote hoof health until spring.
• Consider pulling shoes. If you seldom ride during the winter, consider having your farrier pull your horse's shoes for at least a couple months. This allows your horse's hooves to "rest" from the shoes' weight, and will help them achieve a more natural, expansible state. Barefoot hooves also easily shed ice and snowballs. Note that some horses have very thin soles or peculiarly fragile hooves and tend to get sore when the shoes are pulled, so you'll need to customize this strategy according to your horse's particular hoof-care needs. No matter what, keep up your regular farrier visits; schedule an appointment every six to eight weeks.
• Consider hoof boots. If the ground remains bare of snow for long periods of time, consider using hoof boots when you do ride to help keep your horse's hoof capsules from wearing down and to help protect his soles from bruising. I recommend Easy Boots, Boa Boots (both available from Easy Care, www.easycareinc.com), and Old Mac's Hoof Suspension System (available from Old Mac's Pty. Ltd., www.oldmacs.com).
•Use traction carefully. If you ride on slippery terrain, you can ask your farrier to apply Borium caulks or metal studs to the ground surface of your horse's shoes to improve traction. But there's a trade-off. Not all ground you ride on will be slippery, so your horse's foot may inadvertently stick too long when using these traction devices. His body may continue forward, while his leg remains planted as the caulks or studs grab the ground. This can result in strains, sprains, and more serious joint, tendon, or ligament injuries. Tread carefully, and remove the traction devices as soon as the weather improves.
Nancy Loving, DVM, of Boulder, Colorado, graduated from Colorado State University-Fort Collins with a special interest in equine sports medicine. After a lifetime of trail riding, she began participating in endurance riding and became an FEI Endurance Veterinarian at international competitions. Currently, she's a team vet for the USA Endurance Squad for World Endurance Competitions. She's authored hundreds of magazine articles, as well as three books: Go the Distance: The Complete Resource of Endurance Horses; Conformation and Performance; and Veterinary Manual for the Performance Horse. She's also certified in veterinary acupuncture.