Managing your horses health and wellbeing is an ongoing task across the calendar year. It becomes particularly more challenging in the winter months as the cold and wet weather sets in. In this article we look a few tips to help manage your horse in preparation for winter.
Adjusting how you care for your horse throughout the year in line with the weather is important. Regardless of the weather it is vital to maintain your farriery, veterinary and dental care throughout the year.
You need to consider the horses living conditions and what shelter is available to them, their breed, age, size, what their diet is and whether they are clipped or not. Ensuring all these are provided will help towards maintaining your horses health and help you spot signs of lameness early.
What temperatures are horse comfortable with?
The ambient temperature at which a horse feels comfortable is between 5ºc and 25ºc. As winter arrives and the temperature outside drops below 5ºc, particularly at night, your horse will seek shelter.
So, that’s the first tip in this article - check the weather forecast closely and make sure your horse has access to adequate shelter where they can remain warm and dry.
How do horses naturally stay warm?
Horses are extremely adaptable to temperature changes and warm themselves by increasing their metabolic rate, getting themselves out of the cold and reducing blood flow to their limbs. These natural techniques help them reduce heat loss in colder weather and stay warm. In cases where the horses temperature drops they will often shiver.
Horses have skin, fur, body fat and sweat glands to help them maintain a steady temperature all year round. The horses fur coat prevents body heat escaping but doesn't add heat, just like a standard winter rug. Horses naturally have summer and winter coats which are regulated by the hormone melatonin. As the days get shorter the reduced levels of sunlight trigger the horse to increase their melatonin levels which results in hair growth and the beginning of their winter coat. By the time winter sets in they will have created their winter coat. When the days get longer this process is reversed.
Body fat and the horses skin are also key to horses staying warm in winter. As with many animals they will tend to gain weight as the summer months begin to close in and autumn arrives.
Horses use their feed as a source of thermal heating. Provide good quality natural forage (not pellets) as the process of them chewing acts in a similar way to physical exercise.
Drinking water, as with any time of the year, is also vital. Cold water helps reduce the horses body temperature but in winter and colder months many horses will avoid drinking the water of it's too cold. Our second tip is to invest in an insulated water trough, a thermobar or even a fully heated trough. This investment gives you the peace-of-mind that your horse has continued access to warm water even when the temperature drops below freezing.
Horses help themselves stay warm by exercising. It is important that you allow your horse space to move around and do not continually rug them or keep them locked up in a hot a humid stable - let them thermoregulate themselves. Many experienced horse owners, even in colder climates, claim healthier horses when not fitting their horses with rugs continuously through the winter. Rugs, although developed by manufacturers to keep horses warm, can lead to further complications such as skin conditions such as mud fever and dermatitis.
When to rug your horse in the winter?
The ability to judge when and when not to rug your horse is a vastly debated subject. Using a rug on your horse raises a few risks and poorly fitted rugs can cause rubbing, injury and lead to the development of skin conditions such as Mud fever and Rain scald.
The reality is that horses naturally cope with winter and cold weather and just because you may feel the cold it doesn’t mean your horse is feeling the same.
If you have decided to rug your horse, many owners will rug their horse for a few hours a day and not 24x7, making sure they are not left on the horse wet. Ensure they are well fitted and continually check the horse for any signs of discomfort, rubbing or the onset of skin conditions.
Changing your horses diet in the winter
Feeding your horse through the winter can be a challenge as little nutritional value is left in the grass. In many cases your horses feed will need supplementing and there is a plethora of equine supplements available within the equine industry to support your horses diet through the winter.
A good vitamin or mineral supplement will ensure all their nutritional needs are met but with so many options available it can often be confusing which one suits your horse best. Providing an adequate diet is beyond guess work so it’s worth noting the six main nutrients horses require to remain healthy and ensure your horse has access to all of them.
Water; as we discussed above - providing access to water is the most important nutrient you can give as horses simply cannot live without it!
Fats; a production of energy and found in 2-6% of most premixed feeds on the market. Many feeds specifically developed for the winter contain high levels of vegetable oil.
Carbohydrates; the main source of energy and found in most feeds. Soluble carbohydrates such as starches and sugars are found in nearly every feed source including forages which typically have 6-8% starch but can increase to over 30%. It is vital that these levels are controlled as increased and prolonged access to high starch content can lead to colic.
Proteins; used in muscle development and exercise, the main building blocks of which are found in amino acids. Soya bean based meals and alfalfa are great sources of protein which can be easily added to your horses diet. Most adult horses require between 8-10% protein in their diet, however, higher protein levels are important in lactating mares.
Minerals; required for the ongoing maintenance of the horses health with small amounts of macro-minerals such as calcium, chloride, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, sulphur and magnesium required in their daily intake. In the majority of cases fresh forage will provide the appropriate levels of minerals except for salts which are often provided to horses in salt bricks.
Vitamins; either fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) or water-soluble vitamins (C and B-complex) are required to maintain a healthy horse and are generally found in adequate amounts in your horses forage.
This leads to our third tip: In some cases, horse owners take the ‘guess-work’ out of maintaining there horses nutrient and mineral balance by carrying out regular nutrient checks. These can be done by taking samples of their hair or taking blood. Finding a qualified nutritionist is a great way to ensure you are providing your horse with all the adequate levels of minerals and nutrients and can be done relatively cheaply.
Provide your horse with good quality forage
In winter months, horses are required to eat between 1.5% to 3% of their body weight in some form of forage, daily. Clearly, providing your horse with good quality and nutritional forage is important but how do you know what is good quality forage and what isn’t?
Often good quality forage will retain a slight colour of green and smell sweet like freshly cut grass. It will contain low moisture content (between 12-18%) and be free from weeds, mould or dust.
Damp forage should be avoided as this can develop into mould. Brown or yellow forage is less than ideal and black or grey colour can indicate mould is already present. Musty or an odour of fermenting grass should be avoided and forage should have no signs of weeds within in.
Maintain your paddock in the winter
With the wetter months upon us, the increased risk of mud-related conditions is increased so its worth maintaining paddocks and areas where the horse may stand - both for your horse and yourself! Gateways, troughs and hay feed areas will naturally become high-traffic areas which will become muddy and slippery underfoot. A slip on muddy ground can lead to serious tendon or ligament strains so avoiding slippery ground is advised.
Putting down specialist mats can help, along with regular moving of troughs and rotating grazing areas.
Along with maintaining the ground conditions, ensuring that sycamore seeds don’t fall in your horses paddock is also an important part of maintaining the paddock. Fence off areas of sycamore trees which may drop seeds in the paddock, if ingested these can lead to Atypical myopathy.
Horse tack for the winter
In the winter ground conditions can often become wet, muddy or frozen which can create complications. If your horse is subjected to long periods of snow or mud they are unable to dry off properly which can lead to skin conditions. It is vital that you maintain their legs and hooves at this time of year and regularly check for signs of infection.
A tip from one our Canadian sponsors who experiences high levels of snow each year is using a hoof conditioning resin such as beeswax or lanolin - these provide a level of conditioning to your horses hoof without drying the hoof like traditional petroleum jelly can. Petroleum jelly is traditionally applied on the bottom of your horses hooves to prevent build up of snow but can actually dry out the hoof. Anti-snowball pads are available from many equine tack shops and are designed to stop a build up of snow on shod hooves.
Colder temperatures can also naturally increase joint issues leading to the joint being less mobile and creating pain or lameness in your horse. Horses with equine arthritis will normally show reduced mobility as the weather gets colder. Providing your horse with a joint supplement can help along with tack such as magnetic boots and bands.
Advanced magnetic horse bands; a new addition to the horse health market is the introduction of advanced magnetic therapy for horses - EQU StreamZ highly acclaimed horse bands - which provide all year round joint care for your horse. This revolutionary approach to magnetism helps reduce inflammation within the joints whilst keeping your horse supple and fully mobile and are suitable for long-term 24x7 use even in the snow.
Hoof boots can also help prevent a build up on snow and keep your horses feet clean and dry. But make sure to chose well-fitted boots which don’t rub.
Finally, we take a quick look at some of the most commonly found winter health problems found in horses.
Mud fever; also known as ‘scratches’ or ‘pastern dermatitis' is a bacterial infection which is not contagious but often occurs around the the lower section of the horses leg. As bacteria thrives in wet and muddy conditions it is naturally more common in wet and muddy ground conditions - hence the name. Signs of mud fever include areas of scabbed and lesioned skin, a thick gloopy discharge, increased heat, swelling and ultimately hair loss.
Rain scald; a similar bacterial infection to mud fever but found on the horses neck, back and rear. As with mud fever the horse will develop lesions or scabs and result in patches of hair loss. It’s worth noting that similar symptoms can be seen with ringworm which is highly contagious so if you do suspect rain scald then get your horse tested.
Winter laminitis; laminitis is a serious health condition in horses which can be seen all year round, including the winter months. If your horse has a history of laminitis then it’s more prone to winter laminitis which causes the horses hooves to become sore as they are exposed to colder temperatures. Horses effected with winter laminitis will have reduced blood flow to their hooves and often show inflammation within the laminae.
Impaction Colic; another serious condition which is developed by your horse eating lots of dry feed whilst not taking on enough liquid. More common in winter months as horses eat more roughage to generate body heat. They will show signs of agitation, pawing at the ground and staring at their belly continuously. If you suspect your horse is showing signs of colic call your vet immediately.
Coughing; as the name indicates, your horse can sometimes develop a cough. This can be an indication of a bacterial or viral infection which are far more common in the colder months of the year. Coughing can indicate an allergic reaction to something but either way, consult your vet.
In summary, winter is often the most challenging time of the year to manage and maintain your horses health with plenty of things to continually check and worry about. Hopefully this article has prompted you to check on the most important aspects of managing your horses health this winter to ensure a happy and healthy horse. If you face any complications or are unsure on your horses health seek professional advise.