Winter is just around the corner…Is your horse ready?
With many parts of the province facing winter sooner rather than later this year, it’s time to consider whether your herd, or horse, is ready for the cold weather and snow to come. As winter approaches, there are a few things that horse owners need to consider if they want their horses to travel through winter healthy and happy.
Adjust Feeding Programs: Before all else, make sure you have enough nutritious food available to last far into the spring of 2010. Not knowing when spring will come, in our province filled with fickle weather, is something that needs to be taken into account. As pasture quality or accessibility declines, consider increasing forage and/or adding concentrates. If you feed a hay with a low nutrient value when tested or plan to feed straw, you will need to supplement the nutrients by way of concentrates. Adding concentrates is something that needs to be done gradually as a rapid change to a horse’s diet can have negative health consequences. Have a plan for your feeding program, when it will change, how much will be slowly introduced, how long you plan to work with this feed program and what it will cost. If your feeding program does not include a mineral supplement, add one, as it will help your horse absorb nutrients and is relatively inexpensive.
Have Teeth Checked: Having the best food available is only useful if your horse has good teeth to eat it with. Make sure your horse’s teeth are regularly checked by a veterinarian or an accredited equine dentist. The inability to grind food properly will prevent a horse from getting all of the nutrients and energy from its food, and this is of particular concern when needs increase during cold weather. The fall months are a perfect time to have your horse’s teeth floated since the weather is warmer and optimum weight can still be achieved. Waiting to have it done in the winter months could become a situation of too little too late if the horse is malnourished. Horses’ teeth wear down over time so senior horses may require a source of feed other than hay, one easy for them to chew and digest.
Deworm: Having an effective deworming program in place is essential to wintering successfully. Deworming will ensure that your horse does not have to compete with some pesky parasite for its nutrients. Plan to deworm after the first heavy frost and use a dewormer that includes a drug to remove tape worms. Praziquantel is the most effective drug for tapeworms and is available in combination with ivermectin or moxidectin. Ask your veterinarian what is right for your horse or your herd. Having a vet involved will ensure that you are not overdoing it or missing something important.
Provide Shelter: All horses must be provided with access to a windbreak or shelter as wet and windy weather robs them of warmth. A thick stand of trees may suit the purpose or, for those in more open country, a wind fence or three-sided, run-in shelter. Blanketing is not necessary for most horses but for those who are clipped, have difficulty keeping weight on or come from a warmer climate and do not have a heavy winter coat, it is recommended. Keep in mind that putting a blanket on top of a winter coat takes the loft from the hair, removing its insulating ability. If you blanket, you must use a blanket with more insulation than what you’ve removed by flattening the coat. If you ride, drying a horse out after a workout is critical. Clipping will help but, without the natural insulation of a winter coat, your horse will then require stabling and blanketing to keep warm.
Check fencing and water sources: Fixing a frozen waterer or retrieving your horses from five kilometres down the road in the dead of winter is not fun for anyone. Ensuring automatic waterers are in proper working order and well insulated before the ground freezes saves on time, money and frozen fingers. Dehydration in winter can happen in a matter of days and, if not detected early, can have very serious consequences. Remember that plastic water troughs need different heaters than metal troughs. Now is the time to buy what’s appropriate for your set up and have it in good working order — before the water freezes. With fencing, ensure they are all visible, strong and, if electric, working properly. Gates that are difficult to open or close now will not improve with the addition of a foot of snow.
Maintain Hooves: Although horses’ hooves tend to grow more slowly in the winter months, they can not be ignored. Don’t let hooves get overgrown; keep them trimmed and healthy. Trimmed hooves will chip less, hold less snow, and provide a bit more grip on slippery ground. If snow packs into your horse’s hooves you can try smearing the bottom with petroleum jelly, or have your farrier put snow pads on if you plan to keep shoes on through the winter. Keep in mind that shoes without pads will increase the balling of snow and ice in your horse’s feet. Work with your farrier to come up with a winter program that matches the needs of you and your horse.
Ready the Stable: If you plan to stable your horses at all through the winter make sure you have ordered your bedding in advance or made appropriate arrangements. Some delivery companies may have limited access to their stock or to you once the snow is on the ground. Close up any drafty spots in your barn, fix broken windows, patch any holes in stalls, be sure barn and stall doors are fully operational, and have snow shovels and salt on hand. If using heaters, be sure they work efficiently and are up to safety standards. Make sure that machinery is well maintained and will start when it is most needed.
Have a plan: As we head into winter it is important to have a plan. If the weather makes roads impassable, are you prepared in the event of a human or horse emergency? If you are injured or must leave for a family emergency, is there someone available to help you with winter feeding? Are there blankets, clean water buckets and bedding available in the event you have to bring a sick or injured horse indoors? Will you be able to provide water in the event of a power outage? Are your truck & trailer winterized? Do you or a neighbour have the ability to plough or remove snow in the event you need to leave quickly with a horse in a trailer?
The winter months are nothing to be afraid of and, in fact, can be quite enjoyable if you are prepared. Although it can seem long, dark and cold, winter is a great time to catch up on all of those horse books and magazines that collect through the summer months, give your tack a good cleaning and maybe get some great pictures of your horse with a snowy backdrop. (If you have some great winter activity ideas for the horse enthusiast, we’d love to hear from you. Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.)