Winter is coming, and in some higher elevations it may feel like it has already arrived. Here in Heber, Utah, we are at 5500 ft and this morning the icicles were hanging off of the pasture water wheels like frozen knives. I really feel for our horses. Even though it’s said horses can cope with temperatures down to -40°, they must be cold.
Horses are incredible creatures, and as winter approaches, they can naturally adapt to the changing environment to increase their defenses against the harsh weather. They will add some extra body fat for warmth and grow a thick coat with which they can fluff up to withstand the chill. Our horses can also manage their blood flow, pooling the majority in their core and vital organs and allowing their lower legs to tolerate the cold. This enables them to stand on ice or snow. If you have ever felt their almost frozen ears in mid winter it’s clear they can handle their cold extremities. Nevertheless, even though they adapt well and we may not be riding, we cannot ignore them during the winter. They need us to do some things that they can’t.
Here are the six things you can do to help your horse through the winter.
1.Tend to their hooves – Ensure they can dry their hooves off and have a dry place to stand. Wet hooves can lead to rot and infection, especially when left for long periods. Hooves grow slower in cold, but still need maintenance and checking on. Take his metal shoes off and trim him every 6-8 weeks. Pick out his hooves and make sure they are clean with no bacteria or rotting deep in the crevasses of the frog. When we give the hooves attention, we can catch any potential problem early and have him happy and ready to ride in the spring.
2.Ask your vet about blanketing – Your instinct may be to place a blanket on your horse when the temperatures dip, but not all horses need or benefit from one. In some cases, putting covers on prevents them from growing a thick winter coat and doesn’t enable them to regulate their own temperature. Place your hand on their neck under their mane on the coldest mornings, and you will see that it is a radiator of warmth. That said, some horses absolutely need to be blanketed. Let them grow out their shaggy warm coats and talk to your vet before deciding whether or not to blanket.
3.Provide a run-in for protection from the wind and rain – A run-in will enable your horse to take refuge and stay dry, sheltered from the driving wind and rainstorms. Keep it open so they can seek shelter when needed and still have the freedom to saunter out and bask in the winter sunshine at will. Penning them in the stall has its own issues as the air is often still and cold, and there is less heat from sunlight available. It’s possible during dry, cold conditions that stables (box stalls) can often be colder than standing outside.
4.Feed them a little extra every day – Our horses burn a lot of calories just trying to stay warm and may need a little more feed to provide energy for that. Burning a lot of calories without additional feed will result in a miserable winter and a thinner horse who is less happy and healthy.
5. Keep your horses hydrated – Place a heater in their water tub to prevent it from freezing. Horses don’t like to drink water that is too cold, and this will warm the water just enough to help them drink. Dehydration is a significant issue in winter with our horses not moving much, giving them no incentive to drink. A good salt lick will help give them the trigger to drink. The rock licks are better than the blocks. You can buy good ones these days that hang on a rope that keep them out of the mud and rain. A good electrolyte mix, such as Redmond’s Rein Water, that you can mix in their water is a great option to encourage them to drink and supply them the minerals and electrolytes they need.
6. Keep Up the Exercise – Get his blood flowing, raise his core temperature, reduce his boredom, and keep him healthy by exercising him. Riding during these months is a great opportunity to give him some attention, check his attitude and demeanor, and retain good contact, communication, and a strong relationship with him. It is also a great time to check and ensure he is drinking enough and is not dehydrated, and to brush him down and clean him off so he is not covered in mud, as that would prevent his coat from regulating his temperature and helping him fluff up to stay warm.
Do these six things to help your horse through the winter and you may be surprised how much easier the cold season is on both of you.