Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Horse Care In the Winter - It's Not That Tough!

When it comes to caring for horses in the winter, since I'm originally from Hawaii, the worse thing that we had to worry about during our winters was too much mud.

While mud is still a concern, it is certainly not my only worry these days.

Being attentive and caring for your horses through the winter months will help to ensure that they get through the season with relatively few problems. And yes, they do need attention and care.

Horses are reasonably hardy in cold temperatures and grow a winter coat for additional warmth. But even though that's the case, care still needs to be taken to ensure that they cool down properly after being ridden, that they're not wet and subjected to wind chill, and that they're being fed properly through the winter months.

First Things First.

As an owner, we have a responsibility to give our horses the right shelter needed to get them through the winter. Unlike where my grandpa had his ranch in Hawaii, here in Glencoe, California, it snows in this part of the Sierra Mountains.

We must provide our horses living outside, or being turned out, during heavy cold rains or snow with a simple three-sided, roofed shelter to provide them protection from the weather.

We must make sure the roof is angled away from the entrance and there is adequate drainage as muddy holes tend to develop in the front of run-in shelters as horses go in and out repeatedly. The shelter should be large enough for the horses in the pasture. If you have many horses, you may need to provide more than one shelter.

Because it snows this time of year here, my first responsibility to my horses was to focus on their shelter, their housing, first.

The first winter that I was here was tough because I didn't have my small barn built yet. The following year, with the help of my Dad and my brothers and a nephew or two, we worked very hard to prepare a stable, basically a small barn, for my horses for the coming winter.

Once it was built, I was able to get my horses in out of the weather. After that, all I had to do was make sure the barn was clean, somewhat warm, and well ventilated yet free from drafts.

We should check our barns for drafts. We want to have good ventilation in our barn, but unnecessary drafts just stir up dust and can give your horse chills.

It is just a fact of life that cold, strong winds combined with wet conditions pose the greatest danger to your horse's health in winter.

When the wind tousles your horse's hair it takes away all the heat trapped by her thick winter coat. Wind can pull surface heat away from a horse's body quicker than your horse can generate more heat. When she's wet and the wind is blowing, its even harder for her to stay warm.

Clean bedding is a priority and regular changes of the bedding should be prioritized. Remove anything that might injure or tempt the horse, such as low-hanging lights, nails sticking out, toxic cleaning substances, that sort of things.

A good example of that was a small medicine cabinet that I had in the breezeway. Bored horses will get into everything and anything, and because of such the small cabinet was on the ground after only having to keep one new horse in the breezeway for just one night.

If your horse is wintering outdoors in a temperate winter climate, be careful of rain.

Wet cold is far less tolerable than dry cold, and you should consider blanketing your horse, as well as ensuring that there is access to some form of shelter such as a shed, to allow the horse to get out of the rain.

Bring your horse in at night and turn him out during the day when the sun is up and the temperature is a little warmer.

It's Up To Us!

Someone once wrote, "Mother Nature gave horses the very best insulation available-their own thick winter coat. Under normal circumstances a horse starts to grow a thick winter coat when daylight decreases. His coat is all he needs to keep him warm. But human interference, body clipping or changing climates, can cause your horse to be unprepared for extreme weather. He may need a little extra help keeping warm."

So yes, it is recommended that we feed our horses additional hay or grain this time of year to keep up their body weight and keep them warm.

I'm a big believer in feeding our horses additional feed this time of year. For a horse, digestion generates more heat than any other body function.
  A horse typically requires 1% of his body weight in good quality roughage per day to function. Up this amount to help keep your horse warm as the weather becomes more severe.
I always try to make sure that our horses are getting enough grain. In the winter, horses burn additional calories. Although you have upped his hay, it may not be enough to keep him warm.

Though I don't blanket our horses, some should consider blanketing your horse if he is clipped, has recently been relocated from a warmer climate, does not deal well with cold or your area's weather is particularly frigid.

For horses in temperate winter zones, ensure that there is still access to a shelter even when they're left outside, such as a lean-to shed or a grove of trees.

Be sure to give horses kept in stables or barns plenty of outdoor time during winter. This helps to keep them healthier because they breathe fresh air and can adjust to the temperature changes on a regular basis.

Encourage lots of movement and exercise to keep warm; this is how horses keep warm in the wild.

Be aware of possible winter ills. Just like us, horses get sick during winter and it's important to know what to be on the lookout for, and how to manage the problems that human intervention can cause.

Horses are susceptible to respiratory illnesses during winter. The ammonia build-up, mold, and dust inside barns and stables can bring on a variety of respiratory illnesses.

Do your best to prevent this by ensuring adequate ventilation and giving your horse plenty of outdoor opportunities to breathe in fresh air. Clean out stalls regularly.

Horses are also susceptible to skin conditions during winter, such as rain-rot, bed itch, ringworm, lice, and infected scratches. Keep the horse clean, groomed, and medicated appropriately.

I do have a blanket. It was a blanket that I bought for an ol' Mac two years ago. He was pushing 40 years old and I had a horrible time keeping weight on him. Older horses or horses that have been ill may require blanketing. Layer your horse's blankets adding and removing them as the weather changes.

Young, fit, sheltered horses probably don't need blanketing. But if your horse is blanketed, please don't forget to remove it daily and check him over for any cuts, rubs or scratches.

For horses with heavy winter coats, it is very important to be sure to check them over every few days for cuts and scrapes that may be hidden by their long hair. This is also a good time to check their body condition - long hair can make it hard to tell when a horse is losing weight.

And yes, winter is the time of year that a horse will burn off a great deal of weight.

Now I know that some folks have written to ask why water is so important in the winter when they are not sweating as much? Well, when horses drink water they reduce their risk of colic brought on by dehydration. 

I always try to make sure that our horses have water available to them. If water is there and not frozen, then a horse will drink.

When the water gets cold, some horses don't like to drink. A water tank heater can help keep the water warm enough so that horses will drink.

If your horse still doesn't drink enough, you might want to feed soaked beet pulp or soaked alfalfa cubes. Remember, horses need to drink to reduce their risk of colic brought on by dehydration.

Be careful not to blanket a wet horse or to use blankets that do not breathe but cause moisture build-up.

Clean out your horse's hooves well. Thrush is a serious problem this time of year.

I've read where some folks who want to ride no matter what will actually add a layer of non-stick cooking spray or petroleum jelly to your horse's hooves so that it will prevent balls of ice and snow from forming in the hooves.And remember, clean hooves have a better grip on icy surfaces than neglected hooves do!

But whether riding or not, it is extremely important to take good care of your horse's hooves in the winter. Mud can cause serious thrush, and clean hooves help prevent it. Besides, if your horse has thrush, the only way to find out is by cleaning its hooves.

See your Vet promptly for treatment of things that you know you can't doctor. Pride and stubbornness has stopped many a person from calling a Vet sooner than the finally did.

So OK, You Want To Ride!

Of course knowing how to care for a horse that is ridden during winter is very important. Riding in winter brings up two issues. First, preparing the horse adequately for the ride, and second, cooling the hot horse down safely in the cold after the ride.

Some will say that there is no temperature bar to riding a horse, providing that your horse has adapted to the temperature - which of course means that your horse is used to regular rides.

My rule of thumb is this: if it's too cold for me, its too cold for my horse.

My recommendation for any horse owner is to be aware of the weather and use common sense. Why put your horse or yourself through horrible weather conditions, and maybe getting sick, just to do it.

It's obviously different on a working ranch where you need to be out in the worse of conditions, but if you don't have to put your horse or yourself through bone chilling conditions - then why do it?

Whether we like it or not, fierce cold winds are not ideal for riding. And honestly, neither are severe thunderstorms or blizzards. So use your common sense when judging the riding conditions.

Winter means longer driving times, longer preparation times, and shorter days. Be aware of the time constraints affecting your ability to ride your horse and care for him.

First rule of riding in the winter is this: If you ride throughout the winter, make sure to warm your horse up slowly and cool him out slowly and thoroughly before putting him away.

Riding is especially important if you're a competition rider, as well as ensuring that young horses get used to the work required of them.

So if you must ride, plan well ahead. it is recommended that a competitive rider should aim for four to six hours weekly of riding during winter months.

Prepare your horse for riding. Even before you get your horse ready for riding, check the terrain and pasture where you plan to ride your horse. Look for ice or deep mud hazards that could cause your horse to slip or trip or fall.

If you see that the terrain looks bad, make plans to avoid those areas or scratch the ride.

In terms of caring for the barn, well I've heard about folks who use de-icing agents such as salt or sawdust to help eliminate slippery areas around a stable and hitching posts, gateways and doorways, and such.

For me, it seems that like everyone else, I fight mud everywhere during the winter months. What do I use? I use gravel.

When there is a break in the weather - such as right now - I go down and get a truckload of gravel to spread around. For example, tomorrow I'm going to town to get a load of gravel so that I can take care of the walking area around my barn - and the entrance to the breezeway. Anything left can be used around the house.

I find my wife is a lot more understanding when I don't track in mud into the house. Gravel will help that.

In terms of the horse? Well, I've heard some say they warm a horse's bit before they put on the bridle. Some say they use hot water and others say they just keep it rolled up in a towel until it's time.

One ol' Cowboy that I knew some 35 years ago used to keep his bridle and bit up on the dashboard of his truck where the truck's heater defroster would blow hot air on it until he was ready for it.

Another ol' Timer that I knew back when used to say, "If it's that damn cold, than I'll use a hackamore! And if that don't work, then my horse can join me inside in front of the fire out of the weather! Some weather just ain't smart to ride in!"

During riding, take care about where you choose to ride. Pitfalls for riding during winter are varied depending on whether you're riding in snow or in more temperate muddy, cold temperatures.

Things to watch out for include:

Deep snow, especially where it conceals holes, tree wells, and crevices where your horse could slip down.
Any ice is potentially dangerous as your horse has no grip or traction. While a little mud is fine, a lot of mud can cause the horse to become bogged, or to trip.

Mud can also conceal objects that might harm your horse. Large areas of mud are best avoided.

And yes, wet slopes are no different. Take care riding a horse down a wet slope, as it is easy to lose grip, especially when going fast, and moving over wet stony or rocky areas.

Never canter or gallop your horse in snowy, muddy, icy, or slick terrain. If you do, you'll just be looking for trouble for you and your horse.

This is really important. It is the same with driving a car on roads that are wet or icy. Many drivers don't respect the ground under them. They don't slow down and take caution. Of course these are usually the people we see on the evening news or in tomorrow's paper when their crash is reported.

Post riding, cool down your horse properly. This is a time when the horse can get a chill, moving from being very hot and sweaty, to being cold.

The following procedures form an important part of sensible post-riding care during winter:

If his ears are hot, walk him around a bit. Feel his ears again. They should be cool, not cold nor hot. Cold ears mean a cold horse.

Dry your horse. A wet horse should be dried after riding in winter; there can be snow, rain, and sweat combining to make for a very wet horse.

Take a towel in each hand and rub the towels over his coat in circular motions. Roughing the hair up will help dry it faster. If your horse is used to a blow dryer, you might consider using this as well.

Any snow that has attached to your horse (especially his legs) should be brushed off. Try to do this outside to prevent taking it indoors where it can melt and become slippery.

Brush or curry your horse once he is dry. This will separate the hairs and help to keep him warm, as body heat warms the air between the coat and skin.

If you do add a blanket, just make sure it is a breathable blanket that allows water vapor to pass through.

Return your horse to his stables, barn, or field. Ensure that there is adequate food and water. Give him hay to eat, as eating roughage warms him quickly, releasing heat as it's digested.

Be sure to check that the drinking water supplied is not frozen.

And lastly, spend time with your horse during winter.

Sure it's cold and wet and the air is crisp enough to make blades of grass. But really, none of those reasons should stop any of us from spending time with our horse - or horses.

Bundle up! Put on your long johns and layer up! Grab your Carhartt coat, pull down your hat, and slip on those gloves, then get out there between those times when you have to be out there to feed.

You see even when the weather is foul and bleak, we have to be sure to go out and see our horse in its shelter. For me, I talk to them while I look them over and check them for cuts, scraps, and such.

When I go out to see my horses, I talk with them about everything under the sun. It's true. As I look them over, I talk to them about what Obama is doing to the country and how we have to fight against it.

I tell them about the world looking sort of crazy these days. And yes, I do all of that while I check their hooves and give them a little more feed to help keep them warm.

So after giving them some grain to help them make it through the cold night, I've been known to take a brush to them - but never ever do I brush so hard as to take away their winter coats.

Horses appreciate your company and it keeps you connected to them.

It will also help you to look forward to the better winter riding days, and the warmer days to come.

If you can't get to your horse as often as you'd like because of winter conditions on roads, and such, then I recommend you have someone else check in on your horse regularly to make sure he's fine.

The responsibility that goes along with owning a horse is great. As their owner, a horse is completely reliant on us.

When we got our horse, we made a deal - an unspoken agreement with our horse. We affirmed that we would not let them down. We agreed to do our part to be ready, willing, and aware of all the correct care that our horse requires.

If we don't do our jobs, hold up our end of the deal and follow through with regards to our responsibilities as horse owners, then our horse's health and overall well being will suffer.

As for this article, well I hope this information will enable folks to do what it takes to meet their horse's needs.

Story by Tom Correa

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