Winter Horse Care Fundamentals
Winter is fast approaching here in the Bluegrass. It won’t be long before temperatures will routinely dip below freezing and snow will top the ground.
The colder temperatures of winter come with a set of unique challenges to horse owners and handlers.
While most horses are fairly hardy and are built to withstand cold temperatures, it is still necessary to plan ahead to ensure you’re prepared for the extremes of winter.
Below we have outlined some of these challenges along with steps you can take to get prepared before winter sets in.
One of the biggest problems we face here in the Bluegrass is ensuring our horses’ water remains thawed and accessible to them when the temperature drops. Lack of adequate water intake can cause both decreased food intake as well as impaction colic.
Keeping your horse’s water thawed is critical. Snow and ice are not suitable substitutes for fresh, clean water. Research has shown that horses will drink the most when their water is maintained between 45 and 65°F.
To keep water constantly available and at the proper temperature, install bucket or tank heaters, or else add warm or hot water regularly. Break up and remove any ice from water reservoirs.
In addition, making a salt block or loose salt available will help increase your horse’s water intake.
In colder temperatures your horse needs more caloric intake to maintain his core body temperature.
For example, if your healthy 1000-pound horse feeds mostly on hay, he will require roughly 20 pounds of hay per day. In extremely cold weather, that figure increases to 25 to 30 pounds of hay.
The microbial fermentation produced by digesting fiber creates heat that maintains your horse’s core temperature. So, when outside temperatures plunge, his fiber intake should increase to compensate for the extra energy needed to keep warm.
Forage such as hay and grass is better than grain for maintaining core temperature, as forage contains more fiber and creates more heat during digestion.
Watch out for colic
Impaction colic is the most common type of colic that horses suffer from. It occurs when a horse has insufficient water intake to keep food moving through his gut.
For most minor cases of colic, the situation can be handled without the aid of a veterinarian. A laxative such as mineral oil may be used to help rid the blockage. Meanwhile, food should be withheld to prevent further complications until the blockage is relieved.
If the colic is more severe, your veterinarian should be called in. He or she give your horse an analgesic to help relieve his pain. The vet may also insert a nasogastric tube through your horse’s nostrils to help relieve gas pressure and aid with movement in the gut.
In the worse colic cases, surgery may be required, depending on your horse’s age, condition, and the location of the impaction.
Good shelter is critical
Even though horses are hardy animals designed for the outdoors, adequate shelter and protection are a must for your horse during extreme weather.
Shelter such as a stable or an open-sided shed will allow your horse to withstand temperatures to -40°F, as long as he is dry and there is no wind blowing on him.
Without shelter available, he can tolerate temperatures around 0°F in the same conditions. The need for adequate shelter is obvious.
For two horses using an open front shed or run-in, allow 240 square feet of space, with an additional 60 square feet needed for each additional horse.
You may also want to purchase a blanket for your horse as an added factor of protection against the cold. If you do blanket him, make sure it fits well and doesn’t rub sore spots where the straps secure.
Check it daily and re-position it as necessary for his comfort. Plus, make sure his coat is dry before putting a blanket on him. Never put it on when he’s wet.
Take steps now to get your and your horse ready for a long, cold Central Kentucky winter. Preparation now will save you time and hassle later, plus help keep your horse happy and healthy.