Horse keeping is a daily round of chores during any time of year, but in the cold and wet days of winter, new challenges come to the fore. For a healthy horse, pay special attention to feed, water and turnout during winter.
Horses can be at risk of hypothermia when temperatures fall. A healthy horse with a natural winter hair coat and ample forage has no trouble staying warm even on the coldest winter day, as long as he remains dry and has access to shelter. If a horse wears a blanket, make sure that it has not become soaked and change it when needed. A wet blanket will trap the cold and quickly cause the horse to lose body heat.
The key to staying warm lies in the horse’s digestive tract, where fermentation in the gut produces heat. The necessary ingredient for this process is long-stem fiber — hay. An additional benefit is that fiber is digested slowly, so nature’s central heating system lasts for a long time. The best protection against cold is to provide 24-hour access to forage so the fermentation process never slows or stops. Ample forage also helps to prevent impactions and colic.
Horses also need plentiful water, at a time when water sources may be frozen or near freezing temperatures. A horse is much more likely to drink water that is a warm or tepid temperature than to drink icy water, so when temperatures turn cold, offering buckets of warmed water encourages the horse to drink more water, and consequently to eat more hay.
The number one cause of colic during winter is a lack of fresh water, because the water is frozen, or because the horses choose to not drink water simply because it is so cold. Horses must drink 10-12 gallons of fresh water every day and can become dehydrated quickly if water is unavailable. This can lead to colic caused by indigestion or impaction.
There are several ways to ensure a steady supply of water during cold temperatures, ranging from insulated buckets to tank heaters. A low-tech option is to offer warm tap water in 5 gallon buckets at feed time.
Another strategy to encourage a horse to drink more water is to offer a mash. Bran is the traditional feed for a mash, but the calories delivered are less important than the water the horse consequently ingests. You can just as effectively add warm water to the horse’s regular feed and serve it right away. Adding a teaspoon of salt will also encourage the horse to drink more.
Weather-related restriction from the usual turnout schedule can also increase a horse’s risk of colic, due to lower activity and resulting reduced intestinal motility.
Maintaining turnout through the winter is a benefit to a horse’s health, but creates different challenges for maintaining pastures in the rainy Northwest. Managing mud keeps pastures in optimal condition and prevents related health maladies for the horse.
Mud can lead to several health problems in horses. Continually wet feet are more vulnerable to thrush, canker, abscesses and white line disease. Scratches is a pastern dermatitis involving painful inflammation and lesions around pasterns that are exposed to moisture and mud. In some cases, a horse will require antibiotics for the offending pathogens.
Bacteria can find their way through abraded skin to cause a subcutaneous infection called cellulitis. Horses with cellulitis experience swelling and heat in an infected leg, show signs of pain and lameness, and often have a fever.
Designating a “sacrifice area” is one way to preserve sodden pastures and reduce mud in horse areas. An ideal sacrifice area will have sand or gravel footing to hold up to rain and horse traffic.
Ideally, choose a high, well-drained area of the pasture, which will hopefully also be near the barn or shelter. The first line of defense is to install gutters along rooflines, to divert water from reaching the paddocks.
Products such as road-bed fabric or heavy plastic grids can provide a barrier under sand or gravel that will ensure many years of use.
Finally, make manure pickup in sacrifice areas a daily chore. Frequent manure removal prevents it from being trampled into the sand or gravel and ruining the results of your hard labor.