winter horse care tips in three parts

Part One - Pasture and Shelter
Pasture time for your horse is important all season long even when it’s snowy and cold. We might not like the cold but, horses are wild animals and they don’t mind being outside. Horses thrive best in temperatures ranging from 14 degrees to 77 degrees. They will also huddle together for warmth if necessary.
Watch out for glazed over paddock and icy patches by the pasture shelter and frozen water buckets. For ice patches, put something with some “grit” on it to make it easier for walking and try spreading some alfalfa meat on ice to help melt it. Dirt, fireplace ashes or burn pit ashes work great for some extra traction. Keep water always accessible, breaking up frozen tops on water buckets or troughs can be done in just a few minutes, sometimes a ball in the water can help keep the top from freezing.
A shelter or run in shed works great in the pasture or paddock to protect horses from wind, snow and rain. This shelter should have clean bedding and water. Dry hay should also be provided in the shelter even if there is hay in the pasture. Remember to keep an eye on your horses - some will try to “dominate” the shelter and deny access to other horses. You need to make sure everyone has access to shelter, food and water.
A shelter is OK for most days but in severe weather conditions, a closed barn is better for protection of your horses. If you choose to “stall” your horse there are a few things to keep in mind. Your barn shouldn’t be much warmer than the outside air temperature that your horses will be turned out in. Don’t totally seal your barn, air flow is good for horses (and humans working in the barn too). Make sure your barn has good ventilation but no cold drafts so as not to cause respiratory problems in your horses.. Make sure to have clean shavings/bedding in stalls daily along with clean water and hay. If horses must be in stalls, provide entertainment for them like a jolly ball or horse pac-a-fier toy. Let horses out every day if weather permits.
Part Two - Feeding & Watering
Before the cold weather really sets in, you should make sure to get your horse a dental checkup - horses need to chew well to get all the nutrients out of their food especially in the winter. Eating and digesting is part of what keeps horses warm in winter, especially if they are outside. Food is energy and energy creates warmth so keep hay available 24/7 to help your horses maintain their warmth from digesting. If your horses are in stalls rather than outside and you choose to use hay nets, be sure to keep them low so that the hay dust isn’t a problem for your horse’s respiratory system.
Remember, winter coats can hide ribs so keep an eye on your horses - increase feed immediately if you start to see weight loss - increase hay portion not grain - timothy hay, orchard grass and long stem hay are great for keeping the gut working, generating heat and keeping weight on. It is much harder for horses to gain weight in winter so, try to maintain their weight with an abundance of hay all season. Also, keep an eye on pasture mates as some can get possessive of their food and won’t let others eat - make sure that each horse has their fair share of the available food.
Keep water always available in stalls and in the pasture. When horses don’t or can’t drink enough, they can have problems with impaction colic and other concerns. To help with keeping outside water troughs from freezing, put a large ball in it (like a soccer ball or basket ball). This will help to easily break up any thin layer of ice that might build up when the horse pushes the ball to get a drink. Experience shows that rubber water troughs are tough and won’t crack easily like inexpensive plastic ones so you can easily break up frozen water and refill. Be careful of frozen water buckets in stalls, check them often and refill with fresh water as needed. If your horse isn’t consuming enough water, to help work the hay they have eaten, put a salt block out where they can easily access it and this will help keep up their water consumption.
Part Three - Hoof Care / Blanketing / Bathing
Your horse’s hooves and their care are especially important in the winter due to the unavoidable slippery conditions. If you ride in the winter, be sure to pull horses shoes and trim regularly, long toes are clumsy and can make for an uncomfortable ride. Using a non-stick spray (like you would use for cooking) on the hooves top and bottom helps to prevent snow from sticking and makes it easier to walk.
If possible let your horse’s coat grow out, don’t clip. Horses are designed to be “in the outdoors” with no problems. They do best with the natural protection of their coat. A horse’s winter hair coat is more insulating than most blankets - but not if it’s wet. A wet horse can lead to hypothermia so, if your horses get wet outside take a few minutes and attend to them. Towel dry - remember legs and dry against hair grain to really get all the moisture that is by the skin. Then curry, quickly - then cover with a blanket - wool is good to absorb moisture and provide warmth. Take off after about an hour and they will be ready to do it all over again! Horses also can’t stay as warm if they are dirty or muddy, their coat can “fluff” to keep them as warm. If they are muddy you can brush through the mud so hair can “fluff” and insulate more efficiently. Just because we are cold, doesn’t mean our horses are.
If you must blanket your horse, there are a few points to consider. Blankets should cover horses neck as well as their body, just like humans they want to be “warm all over”. A good rule is to blanket senior and unhealthy horses since they don’t have the ability to handle the cold as well as younger, more fit horses. Stalled horses might need blankets due to inactivity. Also, if you clip you should blanket. Use a medium weight with fleece under for above freezing temperatures and add a cover for below freezing. Cotton is too cool and will not warm your horse or keep them warm, especially if they are clipped. Remove blankets during the day - brush and check for irritation from blanket and make any necessary adjustments.
Well, that’s all for this three part series. I hope it was helpful as well as entertaining.

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