The coldest months of the year can be hard on any animal, especially horses. Bitter winds, snow-covered terrain and the potential for less time outside can leave a horse with stiff joints due to lack of movement, boredom that can create unhealthy habits or lack of water that can lead to dehydration issues. Here are seven ways to keep your horse healthy this winter:
1. Keep your horse active
A sudden drop in activity can be jarring for a horse, leaving it restless and agitated. It’s still important for equines to get daily exercise on cold days, especially if it’s not possible for your horse to get its normal level of time outside grazing on its own. Make an effort to keep your horse active by going on brief daily rides or allowing it to take some time on its own turned out in a pasture. You may not be able to go on your usual long rides, but keep your horse’s heart pumping safely by allowing it time outside in shorter bursts. On the coldest days, you can cover your horse in a blanket while walking and, if necessary, once it’s back in the barn.
2. Ensure water doesn’t freeze
Cold climates lead to frozen water, which can be dangerous for horses. It’s vital for horse health that they have access to a consistent water supply in all seasons, including winter. Stay vigilant during the winter when water can quickly freeze over, leaving your horse thirsty with nothing to drink.
Check the water bucket at least twice a day, replacing or breaking up frozen water. An even better option? Fit water buckets with a heater specially designed for horses’ drinking water. Your horse will be grateful for warm water, which animals especially like during the winter. It will come as a pleasant addition to the chillier months.
3. Balance inside and outside time
“Set a timer to remind you to bring your horse into the barn.”
While it’s important to get your horse regular time outside year round, it’s also crucial to balance a split between time outside and inside each day. You may use your horse’s time grazing to get other work done or simply to give him or her a few hours outside during warmer times, but you’ll have to pare down that time in the winter. If you have trouble keeping time outside in balance, set a timer to remind you to bring your horse into the barn and get it back to a warmer environment.
4. Focus on nutrition
Nutritional needs shift for horses during the winter months. What may have been best for your animal in the summer may not be the right course of action during the months when it’s cooped up for longer and trying to compensate for nutritional gaps. Horses are often drawn to eating more hay in the winter, which is beneficial. If your 1,000-pound horse is used to consuming around 20 pounds of hay each day, you should consider increasing that consumption rate to 25 or even 30 pounds each day. Of course, this is all relative to the quantity of hay versus pellet feed your horse normally eats, but in general, you’ll need to increase food intake across the board. Ask your veterinarian for more specific feed instructions for your horse.
It’s equally important to focus on hydration. As stated above, keep your horse’s water supply fresh and warm. In addition to the benefits horses reap when they drink appropriate levels of water, proper hydration also encourages animals to eat more. Without enough water, horses will stay away from eating their full servings of hay and pellet feed, which can lead to weight loss. This condition is particularly dangerous during the winter, when horses need their body mass to help keep them warm and to protect them from harsh winds.
Winter is also a good time to explore supplement options for your animals. If you’re worried about your horse’s hydration, consider adding Finish Line’s Apple-A-Day™ to your horse’s diet. Made with electrolytes and mineral salts, this easy to feed supplement helps promote hydration by replacing electrolytes, which can be lost during exercise.
5. Watch out for ice and mud buildup
“Take special care to remove mud from your horse to mitigate the chances of acquiring bacterial and fungal infections.”
Keep an eye out for hoof health in the winter. It’s common for horses to step in puddles or to pack snow in their hooves. Once the water freezes, your horse’s hoof health may be compromised. Horses may begin walking differently when their hooves are covered in ice, which can negatively affect ligaments and tendons, leading to longer term issues. Check for ice at least twice daily, and chip away any that may have formed.
For both your own safety as well as your horse’s, reduce the chance of injury by breaking up slick patches of ice on your property. Use sand to coat the ice, and fence off any areas such as ponds or areas immediately surrounding a well or hose where puddles often form. Mind areas around troughs or water buckets inside your barn where water can gather.
Be aware of mud buildup as well. Snow and cold rains can create muddy patches on your property, and horses can also track in cold mud into their stalls. You should be aware of mud buildup in all seasons, but in the winter, mud accumulation on your horse’s legs can leave it cold and open to the risk of infection. Take special care to remove mud from your horse to mitigate the chances of acquiring bacterial and fungal infections.
Stay vigilant with your property. Cold mud is a danger to horses while they’re out to pasture – it’s easy for horses to become mired in deep mud. Fence off these areas to reduce risk and keep your horse safe.
6. Use blankets responsibly
“Purchase blankets specifically for your environment and your horse’s needs.”
Placing a warm blanket on your horse is a great way to keep it comfortable during a cold snap. However, not all blankets can be used interchangeably. You’ll have to purchase coverings depending on your horse’s needs. For example, stable blankets are meant to be used only in enclosed environments – these are generally not waterproof. A blanket that doesn’t repel moisture can actually cause more harm than good if your horse is blanketed outside on a snowy or rainy day. If your horse is wearing a blanket that absorbs moisture, it will become wet, leaving your horse colder than when it first went outside.
Similarly, if your region doesn’t experience temperatures that fall below 30 degrees, you won’t need a blanket that will protect a horse from sub-zero temperatures. The reverse is true, as well – prepare your horse for blizzards and a long winter in northern climes by investing in blankets that can protect a horse from windchills that dip well below zero degrees.
7. Make stalls and barns comfortable
If your region experiences mild winters, blankets and warm water may suffice inside a four-sided barn. On the other hand, those in freezing areas may want to make some smaller changes to help horses stay comfortable. Fortunately, horses generally cope well in shelters that protect them from cold drafts. A blanket will be plenty for most fully grown horses.
If you have foals, however, and are worried about the worst of January days, you should consider buying a heat lamp to provide young horses with some relief as they grow. You may also want to use a heat lamp or infrared heater if you’re caring for a sick or injured horse. These animals may be better protected from further infection or exhaustion if they’re kept a bit warmer while resting in a barn.
With a few changes and heightened awareness, your horse can stay happy and healthy all year round, including on the coldest of winter days.