Eight areas that warrant attention during winter horse care

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Blanketing a horse is necessary to reduce the effects of cold or inclement weather when shelter is not available during turnout periods.
Blanketing a horse is necessary to reduce the effects of cold or inclement weather when shelter is not available during turnout periods.

Horse owners should pay attention to eight key areas in the winter care of their horses, writes Krishona Martinson, with the University of Minnesota.

Professsor Martinson, an Equine Extension specialist with the university’s Department of Animal Science, says caring for horses in winter can be challenging.

“Horses may need additional feed, water, and close monitoring of body condition,” she writes in the latest edition of Equine Disease Quarterly.

“Additionally, changes in exercise routines, hoof care and blanketing are needed. As conditions become icy, increased risk of injury can occur if paddocks and barn areas are not properly maintained.”

She highlights eight key areas to focus on to help ensure that a horse’s needs are met during winter.

Water is important. Most adult horses need 10 to 12 gallons of water daily. During the summer months, pastures contain about 80% moisture and can contribute to a horse’s water requirement. In contrast, dried hay contains less than 15% moisture, therefore, a horse will require more water in winter. To encourage drinking, keep the water temperature between 45° to 65°F, regularly clean waterers, make sure tank heaters are in working condition, and check waterers for electrical sensations or shocks. Remember, snow and ice are not adequate water sources for horses.

Monitor feed intake. Lower critical temperature is defined as the temperature below which a horse needs additional energy to maintain body warmth. The lower critical temperature estimate for horses is 41°F with a summer coat and 18°F with a winter coat; however, younger horses may reach their lower critical temperature before a mature horse. For every degree below 18°F the horse requires an additional 1% energy intake in their diet to help maintain body temperature and condition. The best source of additional dietary energy is silage, frequently grass that is fermented by microbes that produce heat and keep the horse warm. Other nutrient requirements don’t change during cold weather.

The best source of additional dietary energy is silage, frequently grass that is fermented by microbes that produce heat and keep the horse warm. Other nutrient requirements don’t change during cold weather.
The best source of additional dietary energy is silage, frequently grass that is fermented by microbes that produce heat and keep the horse warm. Other nutrient requirements don’t change during cold weather.

Track body condition and weight. During winter months, heavy hair coats can hide weight loss or gain. Body condition and weight should be assessed monthly to help track horse health and to note purposeful or unwanted changes. Bodyweight can be tracked using weight tapes, the Healthy Horse mobile device application, or mathematical equations that use various body measurements.

Blanketing a horse is necessary. It will reduce the effects of cold or inclement weather when shelter is not available during turnout periods; temperatures or wind chill drop below 5°F; and when the horse has become wet, had its winter coat clipped, is very young or very old, isn’t acclimated to the cold, and/or has a body condition score of three or less. Make sure blankets fit, because poorly fitted blankets can cause sores and rub marks. Remove the blanket daily, inspect it for damage, reposition it, and make sure it stays dry.

Provide access to shelter. In the absence of wind and moisture, most horses tolerate temperatures at or slightly below 0°F. If horses have access to shelter, they can tolerate temperatures as low as -40°F. Researchers found that in mild winter weather, horses housed outdoors tended to use very little shelter. However, shelter usage increased to 62% when it snowed and wind speed was greater than 11 miles per hour. Although frostbite of the ears is uncommonly reported in horses, there is the potential for it to occur under very adverse, sub-zero weather conditions.

Provide exercise with turnout, or as often as possible. One challenge with winter riding is the process of cooling down a horse with a winter coat. A hair clipping technique, known as a trace clip, can be used on regularly exercised horses to help speed the cooling process. However, clipped hair doesn’t grow back rapidly in winter; therefore, use appropriate shelter and blankets throughout the winter and into the early spring months. Take caution when riding in deep, heavy, or wet snow to prevent tendon injuries and avoid icy areas.

In the absence of wind and moisture, most horses tolerate temperatures at or slightly below 0°F.
In the absence of wind and moisture, most horses tolerate temperatures at or slightly below 0°F.

Maintain regular hoof care. Horse hooves generally grow slower in the winter; however, trimming should still occur every 6 to 12 weeks. Horse hooves are prone to “ice or snowballs” during the winter. These balls of packed ice or snow make it hard for a horse to walk, increase the chance of slipping and falling, and put stress on tendons and joints. Make sure to pick your horse’s hooves daily, especially after heavy snow and consider fitting snow grips.

Keep paddocks in working order. Icy paddocks cause slips and falls that can lead to serious injury. Use sand to increase traction on ice, but don’t feed horses near sand as they may accidentally ingest it. Straight salt can speed the melting of ice if temperatures aren’t too cold. Research has not documented the effect of salt on horse hooves, but to be safe, use pure salt in moderation. Don’t use a mixture of sand and salt in paddocks since horses may accidentally ingest the sand due to their interest in the salt. Additionally, a thin layer of wood ash or fresh manure can help improve traction. Avoid shavings, hay, and straw as they tend to slide over ice and provide little traction.

Martinson says owners who pay attention to these eight areas can provide a safe environment for their horses throughout the cold months.

Equine Disease Quarterly is supported by Equus/Standardbred Station, Inc and M&J Insurance.

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