Why you should set your horse free over winter

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Brrrr! It’s cold! Time to take that heavy jacket out of the closet. And it’s time to prepare the barn! Extra soft bedding, perhaps some nice relaxing music. Close the windows. Even get those heaters going. Make it cozy.

But here’s a secret … Horses don’t like cozy!

Horses are naturally claustrophobic and their mental well-being suffers when confined. They instinctively need open spaces, allowing them to run at a moment’s notice. That’s why your horse so often sleeps standing up. And that’s why he needs a herd (even if it’s only one other horse) to stand sentry so he can rest deeply by lying completely prone for a few minutes each day.

Lock him in a stall by himself, and his very survival feels threatened.

winter-snow-400“My horse likes his stall,” you might say. Horses are creatures of routine and if they are regularly stalled, they succumb to that state. But if you give your horse an opportunity to make his own decision about where he’d rather be, you will have a different horse.

A personal story

I rescued Topper years ago when he retired from a life of performance as an eventing horse. When he wasn’t traveling or in training, his time was spent inside a 12 x 24 foot stall, with an hour of outdoor pasture each day. He was beautiful. He was a prince.

I took him home to a new life. The first thing he encountered was pasture and wide open spaces. There were no walls, no confined spaces, no closed gates, no restrictions. He was free!

At first, he was distant, unsociable, easily spooked, and fearful of change. His buddy patiently prepared him for his new life. Together, they roamed the pasture and only went into their stalls during feeding times. He was never trapped inside. When that gust of wind came by to rattle the barn, or he heard an unfamiliar sound inside, he could get out and come back to continue eating only when he deemed it to be safe.

Winters were fierce in Ohio. Topper chose to enjoy the cold, sunny days outdoors. But if he felt the need, he could walk inside the barn where there was plenty of hay to enjoy, and heated water to hydrate him. Topper’s transformation was remarkable. He became relaxed, affectionate, and joyful.

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Horses love the cold! Forget the blanket — in most cases

Keep this in mind — your horse is already wearing a winter coat. Why put on another one?  Your horse’s hair coat is fully equipped to keep him insulated against the cold (and also against the heat, I might add, but that’s a topic for another time). Given protection from wind and wet weather, such as a run-in shed or a stand of trees, he is able to keep sufficiently warm in the coldest weather.

There are cases, however, when a blanket is worthwhile. Horses who shiver in the cold, are underweight, aging, ill, or otherwise frail, may feel better with extra covering. However, don’t put it on and forget about it. Check your horse under his blanket for sweating; a blanket somewhat inhibits the hair coat’s natural ability to protect against cold,i so a sweaty blanket that freezes makes it very difficult for the horse to stay warm. It should go without saying that you should check daily for any areas where the blanket may be causing discomfort.

Stall confinement leads to many preventable health issues

Standing in a small, indoor space for hours on end can be exceedingly damaging to your horse’s health. It leads to ulcers, colic, and other digestive disorders,ii obesity,iii porous bones, joint stiffness, poor feet and hair coat, respiratory ailments, loss of muscle mass,iv and acceleration of aging. While some sort of shelter is a must, using it should be your horse’s choice, not yours.

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Other winter tips

  • Hay should be available, 24/7. This is true year round, but in the winter, horses rely on a steady flow of forage to keep warm.
  • Fill in the nutritional gaps that exist in hay. Add a comprehensive vitamin/mineral supplement along with a source of omega 3s.  Offer a variety of protein sources that boost the overall protein quality in the diet.v
  • Prevent dehydration colic. Most colic cases in the winter are caused by reduced consumption of water because it is ice cold. Access to temperature controlled water will ensure adequate intake.
  • Don’t forget the salt. Horses need a daily maintenance level of two tablespoons (one ounce) of salt year round. Salt blocks and natural rocks generally do not provide enough salt because they irritate the horse’s smooth tongue. Keep the rocks for extra needs, but either offer coarsely granulated salt in a small bucket or add salt to your horse’s meal.

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If you board your horse … 

You are likely frustrated if your horse is stalled for most of his day. You want what is best for your precious horse but feel you have no choice.

I appeal to you to take a close look at your options. Look into pasture boarding your horse. Seek out facility alternatives. Or perhaps, just perhaps, there is change in the air for you and your horse. Many of my clients have moved to the country so their horses can be in their backyards. The lifestyle shift is truly liberating. You will finally be able to feed and house your horse as he should be – like a horse. Think about it, won’t you?

Bottom line 

Your horse depends on you for his well-being. Appreciate your horse’s instinctive ability to withstand and enjoy cold weather. Respect his need to move on a moment’s notice. Honor the way he was made.

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i  Article
ii  Physical activity increases blood circulation and stimulates gastrointestinal motility, keeping the entire digestive tract in good shape, lessening the chance of torsions, impactions, and intussusceptions that lead to colic. Fiber digestion is also improved. Within two weeks of changing to stall confinement, the vast majority of horses will develop ulcers and more than half of them will develop colon/cecal impactions. See Loving, Nancy S., 2010. Consequences of stall confinement
iii  The reason is obvious — too little activity, combined with too many calories. Reducing calories can be accomplished by minimizing or even removing concentrates from the diet, but forage must never be restricted. Doing so starts a hormonal cascade that actually keeps the horse overweight. Please read my articles – “Restricting Forage is Incredibly Stressful,” and “Bring Back the Horse’s Instincts.” Both are in the Library section at GettyEquineNutrition.com
iv  Graham-Thiers, Patricia M, Bowen, L. Kristen. 2012. Improved ability to maintain fitness in horses during large pasture turnout. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 33, 8, 581-585.
v  Seeds, such as ground flax, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, and pumpkin seeds offer additional protein. Split peas, pea protein isolate, whey protein, and hemp seed protein fiber are also worthwhile. Protein quality can also be improved by mixing grasses and adding alfalfa to the diet.

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Juliet M Getty

Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D. has been called a “pioneer in free choice forage feeding,” and her articles and interviews often appear in national and international publications.
» Read Juliet’s profile

One thought on “Why you should set your horse free over winter

  • December 3, 2016 at 7:29 am
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    Awesome article! It’s so easy for us humans to anthropomorphize, isn’t it? We’re cold, so our horse must be cold. We feel safe in our bedroom, so our horse must feel the same way about his stall. We lick lollipops, so our horse shouldn’t mind licking a block of salt. Such important myths debunked here! Definitely sharing this far and wide, and also on my Facebook page, “The Healthier Horse.”

    Thank you, Dr Getty!

    Reply

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