Having A Healthy Winter

Some Simple Things to Consider During Winter for Better Horse Health.

Posted on: January 13, 2014

horses on a large trailer

Winter is finally upon us.

During winter comes a whole new set of challenges for keeping our horses healthy and happy. I just wanted to touch on a few points that come to mind when dealing with cold weather.

heated bucketWhen temperatures drop and our horses' water becomes cold or even frozen, they tend to drink less. It is important that a horse continue to drink consistently throughout the year to keep its gastrointestinal tract working properly.

Good water intake will help to prevent colic, choke and dehydration. Breaking the ice out of each bucket or using warm water only helps for a few hours at best.

The best solution for preventing chilly and frozen water is to invest in heated water buckets or tubs. I prefer the plastic ones with the heating element concealed in the bottom of the bucket and a metal coil around the electrical cord. I use regular water bucket sized ones in the barn and muck tub sized ones in the field, and they are great! The heater automatically shuts off when the water reaches a preset temperature so that excess electricity isn't used. They may cost a little extra to purchase up front, but the savings in veterinary bills from colic visits can add up quickly!

Nutrition in the colder months is a topic I regularly discuss with clients on the farm. Although horses need extra calories to maintain weight during the winter, these calories are best supplied by more forage, not extra grain. Adding extra hay to the diet when it's cold outside provides more “slow burn” energy to keep a horse toasty throughout the day than sweet feed does. Grain does provide calories, mostly in the form of starch, but fiber and fat are more concentrated sources of calories for a horse that needs a boost.

In horses that need more than their normal grain or pellet ration plus hay to maintain or gain weight, fat can be supplemented. The most economical way to provide fat calories is by adding corn, soy or vegetable oil to their feed. Fat can also be safely fed to horses with metabolic issues such as insulin resistance and Cushing's Syndrome that require more calories, since it does not contain starch like grain does. For a 1000 pound horse, I start with ¼ measuring cup of oil twice a day and increase to 1 cup twice a day over two weeks. Adding the oil in slowly helps the horse to accept the taste more readily and may decrease the incidence of diarrhea caused by the sudden addition of a large volume of fat. Most horses, including my own, seem to really enjoy the oil on their pellets. There are also commercial dry fat supplements available with varying amounts of fat provided per serving.

Beet pulp is another great source of calories in the form of fiber that can be added to the existing ration either dry or wet depending on the preference of the horse and client. Beet pulp is also a safe source of calories for horses with metabolic diseases since the sugar from the sugar beet has been extracted during processing (the beet pulp is a byproduct). I usually start with oil and add in beet pulp if I am not seeing results in 1-2 months. The amount I add is dependent on what the horse is already being fed.

Although more expensive than a typical maintenance pellet, senior feeds are another good source of both fat and fiber for any age of horse and may make adding calories less complicated. Some senior feeds are “complete feeds” and are designed to be able to be fed without forage (hay or grass) to horses that have poor teeth when fed in appropriate amounts

Another thing to consider is hoof health during the winter. With frozen, rutted ground, the soles of a horse's feet can become bruised and sore or even develop foot abscesses pretty easily. Make sure to use your hoofpick religiously in the snowy weather to remove balled up snow in your horses' feet, especially if they are shod.

I also hear almost every day that clients have their horses' shoes removed during the winter because the clients are not riding in the cold. For a horse that is used to wearing shoes throughout the year, taking those shoes off suddenly on frozen ground is akin to a human walking barefoot on stones after wearing shoes all day! The extra height provided by the shoe keeps the more sensitive sole off the ground. If you are considering transitioning your horse to being barefoot, it would be better to start in the warmer months when the ground is soft. It takes several weeks for a horse's sole to harden up after having shoes removed and they can be quite sore in the meantime. The change from dry to wet weather in the winter can also cause cracking of the hoof wall, and leaving those shoes on helps to hold the foot together.

Be careful when turning out onto frozen ground to avoid horses slipping and falling. I have been to see several horses that fell on the ice in the last few days, and luckily all were fine after getting some help up.

I hope everyone is enjoying the snowy weather and know we are all counting down to warmer days! Next week I'd like to write about anaplasmosis, an emerging tick-borne disease that I have been seeing more often since the weather has changed.