In the last few years we have had relatively dry winters here in Sonoma County. Hopefully that will soon change as we really need the rain. But even with dry winters we still get the short cold days. With a little rain and dropping temperatures we, as horse owners, must to be prepared.
The Benefits Of Fat
In Sonoma County we don’t get snow but we do get the wind and cold. Your horse’s best defense against winter is his fat reserves. The fat helps keep the horse warm by insulation and the burning of calories. To maintain that reserve you may need to increase their hay or grain ration. But be careful. There is a fine line between a healthy horse and an obese horse. Check with your vet to get an idea of where your horse may fall. Some people will add vegetable oil to their horse’s grain to increase the fat in their diet. Rice bran is a healthier alternative as a horse can utilize it better. Rice bran is also around 70% fat.
Shelter is a key component to your horse’s comfort and health in the winter. While a horse that has a good hair coat will be fine outside in the cold and wind they still need shelter from the rain. Once the hair coat soaks through to the skin they will get chilled quickly and start to shiver. Shivering is a defense mechanism used as a last resort to stay warm. If the wind kicks up, a wet horse can become dangerously cold out in the open. At a minimum a horse should have a roof that they can get under to stay dry. By adding one wall on the windward side you can increase your horse’s comfort greatly. All the local barn supply companies have kits available and easy to build. A three sided shelter is ideal. Built facing in the right direction your horse can be very comfortable with a dry place to eat and lay down.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a barn you still need to think about ventilation since a barn can trap musty, dusty air. Having doors that open allowing a cross wind will help suck stale ammonia laden air out. Some people will put ceiling fans in stalls to remove ammonia air. The key is to make sure the fan blows down rather than sucks air up. Also make sure your stall fronts are mesh so air can escape.
To minimize dust I recommend using high quality shavings or pellets. With a spray nozzle on a hose you can lightly wet the bedding to help keep dust down. Stalls should be cleaned a minimum of once a day. I find that pellets last longer and are easier to clean than shavings and using pellets has decreased cost, the size of our manure pile and the amount of time it takes to clean a stall. Use enough shavings or pellets to create a soft place for the horse to lie down. Rubber mats alone will not be enough to make your horse comfortable. Also, horses prefer to urinate on surfaces that minimize splash because the acidity of urine irritates their legs.
With rain comes mud. Cleaning up after your horse in the mud is difficult at best. Leaving manure in wet conditions creates more mud. Having your horse stand in mud is bad for the hoof and skin. Mud harbors bacteria which can penetrate the hoof and get trapped causing painful abscesses. On the skin it can cause “scratches” which is a skin infection that is very painful and hard to treat.
Addressing the mud situation before the rains come can save you a lot of time and work in the future. This year we installed a ground stabilization grid called EcoGreenGrid that is filled with a fine rock which allows for drainage. The grid creates a bridge that prevents the horse from wearing holes in the run which would create an area for standing water and eventually mud. It was inexpensive and easy to install. Temporary solutions include adding base rock or sand to runs. While this is a short term fix, over time it will breakdown and become uneven without support and eventually your mud problem will return.
The Deep Freeze
While we don’t get the cold like other parts of the country, we still get periods of below freezing temperatures which can lead to frozen pipes and troughs. Cold water can be a hidden danger to horses. A thin sheet of ice can prevent a horse from drinking which can cause a horse to cut back on their water intake. This can cause colic usually in the form of an impaction. Besides, a horse prefers warmer water. Insulated waterers are available which work great but can cost more than $350. Another solution is to use a water trough heater. These are electric and come with their own set of dangers and should be used carefully.
I like to add salt to my horse’s grain to encourage drinking. Though, if your horse has ulcers salt can be irritating. Purina came out with a product called HydraSalt that we tested and had great success with. I used it extensively while traveling and it increased my horse’s water consumption greatly.
Some people will soak their horses hay. This is effective as it adds moisture to the hay making impaction colic less likely. I’ve had good results with this method but have yet to find a way to do it without creating a huge mess.
As I mentioned before, freezing temperatures can lead to broken pipes. While pipes may not break on the first night of a freeze leading to a false sense of security, multiple nights of freezing can stop water flow. On the first night a layer of ice will form. If the day is cold more ice will form on consecutive nights until the pipe is frozen solid. Each time it thaws a little water will fill that space. The freezing expands the water until the pipe breaks. The larger diameter your pipes are the safer you are. Half inch and three quarter inch line will freeze solid in a couple of nights while larger diameters will take more nights. Insulating pipes is your best defense. We installed a shut off valve with a drain valve downstream so I can drain the water out of the pipes each night. If the horses are in the barn then I have to fill buckets. It’s a little work but it’s a lot better that a flooded barn.
To Blanket or Not To Blanket
I don’t show my horses so I allow them to grow a thicker coat in the winter. We blanket on days when it is that annoying kind of rain but the horses can still be out. We also blanket our “hard keepers”. Some people clip their horse’s hair coat so they don’t become sweat soaked during workouts. These and older horses will need blankets.
A blanket needs to be heavy enough to replace the hair coat the horse may not have. If the blanket is too heavy it will cause a horse to overheat. A light blanket on a thick coated horse will flatten the hair coat robbing the horse of insulation. Check with one of the local tack shops to get the right weight of blanket for your horse.
With a little thought before Old Man Winter arrives you can make sure your is horse comfortable and drastically cut down on your work and worry. This will allow more time for you to enjoy your horse and maybe even your family during a very fun time of year.
As always, be safe and enjoy your horse.