Winter is setting in across the country and forecasters are predicting it may be colder and wetter than normal. Here are some ideas to consider when it comes to the care and feeding of your horses during the next few months.
To Blanket or Not To Blanket? In fairness, I won’t try to answer this question. It continues to be discussed year after year among horse owners of all types, sometimes with pretty strong feelings on both sides. But let’s at least be practical on the issues of blanketing.
If you choose to blanket your horse in the winter, make sure the blanket you choose fits your horse well and is good quality. An ill-fitting or poor quality blanket will be inconvenient at best, and at worst can be a real danger for your horse. The right blanket should fit the horse’s body well and have no loose or broken straps or buckles. Take the time to check your horse’s blanket prior to using it for the season. Repair any damage or buy a new one if needed, and once in use check every day to be sure the blanket is still in place and comfortable for your horse.
The right blanket should be an appropriate weight for the conditions your horse will be in. A blanket that is too warm and causes the horse to sweat can be far worse than a blanket that is too light. Once a horse is wet, even from sweat, it has a much harder time keeping itself warm. In this same vein, outdoor blankets should be water resistant so that they do not become water-soaked and heavy in rain, sleet or snow. In fact, a horse out in the cold wearing a wet blanket is probably worse off than a horse that is not blanketed at all.
Inside or Out? Another tough question. But whether you choose to keep you horses outside, inside or a combination of both during the winter, consider these issues:
If your horse will be stalled indoors, perhaps the most important issue is to make sure the space is well ventilated. Enclosed spaces can have increasingly poor air quality if they are not properly ventilated to allow dust, ammonia and other respiratory irritants to be replaced with fresh air. If you have to sacrifice some heat in order to keep the air in the barn fresh, you are almost always better off to do so.
I think the best housing for horses in the winter is to have a run-in area that is covered and has at least three sides, like a loafing shed, yet with access to outdoor space. Your horse is then free to manage its own comfort by getting out of the weather when needed, but still has the benefits of open air, open space and sunshine.
If your horses must be exclusively outside in the winter, provide some type of cover if possible. Protection from the wind may be just as important as is cover from precipitation.
Having said all this, horses can and do live outside all winter long in very cold climates all over the world. It may not be ideal, but a horse that is well-fed and in good health will be able to thrive outdoors, even in very cold conditions.
So What About Feeding? If you have your horse on a good feed and nutrition program, you probably won’t need to make many changes during the winter. Depending on the horse’s living and housing conditions, he may need some additional calories to make up for those being used to keep warm. Feeding additional high-fiber forage may also be helpful, as horses generate internal heat in the process of digesting the fiber. You should also continue or start feeding a high-quality vitamin and mineral supplement, just as you should at any the time of the year. This, combined with free choice white salt, will help drive thirst and promote more water consumption, which is a very important part of your horse’s health. Lastly, make sure your horse has access to a fresh water source that will remain unfrozen at all times.
Mud, Feet and Shoes. Maybe I’m just a stickler about my horses’ feet, but may I suggest you take extra care of them if your horse is going to spend any time outdoors this winter? Take the time to regularly pick your horse’s feet and remove caked-on mud from the feet and lower legs. This will help reduce the chances of irritation, rashes, fungus and infections in winter, especially if you have a lot of mud. If you will not be riding this winter, you should consider removing shoes as well. They can cause all kinds of annoyances for both you and your horse if they are not needed, including a lack of traction on wet, icy and snowy ground.
As always, use common sense when it comes to caring for your horse this winter. When you are unsure or in doubt about a particular issue, call one of your good horse friends, your trainer, your farrier, or your vet. And when you are able, continue to train, work, ride and enjoy your horse. In doing so you will make the winter season better all-around for yourself and your equine companion.
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