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Preparing Your Horse for Winter

Dear SmartPak:

I recently moved with my horse from a warmer location to a colder one that also has ice and snow. What do I need to do differently to make sure my horse stays happy and healthy through the winter?


Welcome to the cold! Surviving in freezing temperatures definitely requires some additional knowledge and skill, so let’s go through the important areas one by one.

First things first, nutrition. Horses use additional calories to keep warm in the winter, so you may have to make adjustments in his feed to maintain him near the ideal body condition score of 5 on the 1 = emaciated to 9 = obese scale. Increasing the amount of hay fed is the best way to keep weight on horses when it’s cold, as the fermentation process generates heat. Some horses may also require additional fortified grain in the winter to avoid weight loss. If you have an older horse or a hard keeper, consider supplementing with additional fat, amino acids, or other weight gain product at this time of year.

Keeping your horse hydrated is also critical during the winter, when water buckets, troughs and even natural sources of water can freeze. Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine showed that if horses have only warm water available during cold weather, they will drink more per day than if they have only icy cold water available. However, if they have a choice between warm and icy cold water, they prefer the icy cold water and drink less. The take home message is this: by only providing your horse with warm water, you can encourage him to drink more. This can be accomplished by using tank or bucket heaters or by adding hot water to his regular water bucket with every feeding. Another method to encourage your horse to drink more in winter (or any time of year) is to topdress his feed with salt, or electrolytes.

Next topic: blanketing. Because your horse is not acclimated to the colder temperatures in your new location, he is a prime candidate for a blanket. Other horses that may need blankets include thin horses, very young or very old horses, sick horses, and horses that have been body clipped. Owners of rotund, hairy ponies with continuous access to shelter and hay may do just fine without clothing.

Because you aren’t used to winter weather either, it may be tempting to give your horse the season off. However, studies have shown that muscular strength, cardiovascular fitness and overall flexibility significantly decrease even if daily turnout is provided. Unfortunately, exercising your horse when it’s cold and slippery can be challenging. Work with your farrier to figure out what trimming or shoeing method will give your horse the best traction. And spend twice as long warming up and cooling down your horse as you do normally. Above all, make sure he’s dry before blanketing or turning out.

Finally, there are a few health conditions associated with cold weather. Help reduce the risk of colic by encouraging your horse to drink more water as described above. Prevent common skin problems such as “scratches” or “rain rot” by keeping your horse in as clean and dry an environment as possible, and continue to groom as often as you can during the winter. Since more time spent inside stalls may worsen conditions like “heaves” and arthritis, make sure your horse gets turned out every day (weather permitting) for fresh air and exercise, adding medications and supplements as your veterinarian recommends.

Again, welcome to winter in the North, and I hope these tips help you and your horse make the most of the season!

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

Posted in Seasonal Horse Care

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