By Dr. David A. Rustebakke
Although nature has equipped horses to deal with extremes in temperature, there are a number of things you can do to make winter easier on your horse. While you are winterizing your home and vehicles, also think of winterizing your horses.
Horses do not perceive cold to the same degree that we do. Nature has equipped the horse with the ability to acclimate itself to the average winter temperature. A healthy horse in a good state of nutrition with a normal, healthy hair coat is perfectly comfortable at temperatures in the 20's and 30's in the Lewiston Clarkston Valley. I was raised in Eastern Montana where winter temperatures were commonly 10 to 40 degrees below zero; the horses there grew much heavier hair coats, and appeared to be comfortable at those temperatures.
In a nutshell, the key to winterizing a horse is to allow him to acclimate to the prevailing temperatures, provide shelter to protect him from the wind and moisture, and minimize other stressors (the cold weather is enough stress, he doesn't need other health problems to add more stress).
Some sort of shelter is necessary. Wind chill and loss of insulating ability due to a wet hair coat make the temperature appear much colder than it is. Horses turned out on the range can find a canyon, bluff, or trees to escape from the wind; a horse confined to a small pasture has only what you provide for him. Shelter does not need to be elaborate; a 3 sided shed with a roof is adequate.
Blanketing is no substitute for shelter. If done improperly, it can actually be detrimental in that it keeps the horse from becoming properly acclimated to the prevailing conditions. The purpose of blanketing is to prevent long hair growth in horses that are being shown, to provide some warmth while trailering or during colder than usual weather, or to cool out a hot horse in cold weather. A good waterproof well insulated blanket is useful during an unusually cold period; horses that are well acclimated to the 20’s and 30’s of a typical Lewiston Clarkston Valley winter will appreciate a warm blanket on those rare nights when it dips down near zero, or below. However, long term blanketing of an un-sheltered horse may actually prevent growth of a proper hair coat, and can actually increase the chances of the horse becoming chilled.
Although horses do not need as much water in the winter as during warm weather because they are not losing as much through sweat, their basic water needs are the same. Many horses do not get enough water because the water supply is frozen or is so cold it is uncomfortable to drink. Impaction colics are frequently seen by veterinarians during cold weather because the animals do not drink enough to keep the food in the intestine moist enough to pass through. A heater to keep the chill out of the water is a good investment; just remember to protect the cord so the animals do not chew it and electrocute themselves.
Cold weather is stressful, stress leads to decreased resistance to infectious diseases. That is why we humans have most of our colds and flu's in the winter. For the same reason, it is wise to immunize our horses with the available respiratory vaccines in the Fall prior to the onset of cold weather.
Dental problems and internal parasite infections are magnified by cold weather. On the other hand, winter is a time of low exposure to worms. Most worms need to go through a developmental stage on the ground prior to being picked up by a horse, during cold weather they lie dormant and are non-infective. By deworming in the Fall after the cold weather sets in, you can keep your horse essentially worm free till Spring. Parasite control and dental care are big steps in coping with winter weather.
Since a healthy hair coat is essential to protect against the elements, it is important to groom periodically. Rain scald (a bacterial infection of the skin) and ringworm (a fungal infection) love a dirty, matted hair coat. While you're at it, inspect the skin and hair for lice, and feel over the ribs and back for signs of weight loss. Weight loss can easily be missed under a heavy winter coat, and heavy louse infections are a common cause of winter weight loss.
Energy needs are increased when the temperature drops below that at which the horse is acclimated. It is important to monitor the animal's condition and either increase the amount of feed during cold weather, or increase the energy density of the feed through the use of higher quality feed or grain. The average horse can process 20 to 30 pounds of hay per day. Most horses, especially horses that are older or are already a bit thin cannot physically eat enough poor quality hay to meet their basic energy requirements during cold weather.
Winter often means a decline in the horse's use. For most horses, shoeing is probably not necessary if the horse is not being used. However pulling the shoes in the Fall does not mean the feet can be neglected till Spring. Just as the shod horse needs the shoes reset every 6 to 8 weeks, the inactive, unshod horse needs the feet trimmed every 6 to 8 weeks. Failure to provide regular foot care is the single main cause of chronic lameness. So please, don't economize by neglecting the feet.
Finally, don't stop riding in the winter. With the indoor arenas available as well as the relatively mild winters in this area there is no reason that you can't enjoy your horse all year. If you only ride during the warm months of the year, you are missing out on half the fun your horse can provide you!
Dr. David A. Rustebakke
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