Basic Winter Horse Care
Posted: January 6, 2011
Thomas E. Walker, County Extension Director, Juniata and Mifflin Counties
A horse in a closed barn environment during the winter months will need to have a stall that has available fresh air with good ventilation. Too often horse owners think about their own creature comfort, while working in their barn, and decide it best to tightly close up the horse barn. Good for us, not your horse. Good air exchange is important but don’t’ put your horse into a drafty condition. The stall needs to be cleaned daily, twice a day if possible, making sure to especially removing all of the manure and wet bedding. Ammonia levels can become unbearable in a tightly enclosed horse stable. Proper stall cleaning will help keep down respiratory problems with your horse. Think about the times you have gone into a tightly closed horse barn and your eyes burn and when you leave your clothing has a strong smell of ammonia. This is what your horse endures daily, if kept in a facility that is improperly cleaned and ventilated.
Your horse also needs proper exercise during the winter. If you stable your horse every day, you will need to provide an adequate area to exercise your horse. Indoor arenas are great, but unfortunately not everyone can afford one, the next best plan is to have a dry lot or round pen available for your horse’s daily exercise. Please examine your exercise area before your turn your horse out or plan to lunge your horse. Do not exercise your horse when there is an icy condition or any condition that causes poor footing for your horse.
If your horse is pastured during the winter, you need to provide a three sided run in shed for your horse. The open end of the shelter should have a southern exposure. This shelter will be your horse’s place to escape the cold wet weather. Your pastured horse doesn’t need a blanket if they have a good winter hair coat and adequate shelter. The long hair coat will serve as a natural insulated blanket, allowing your horse the ability to tolerate considerable cold.
Free choice, loose, salt and minerals are needed by your horse during the winter along with good clean water. If you can provide heat to your horse’s water, the temperature should be around 60 degrees F. Keeping the water at this temperature will help increase your horse’s water consumption during the cold weather. It is important your horse drinks adequate amounts of water during the winter months; this will help keep your horse from developing colic. If your horse dehydrates due to lack of water intake, and continues eating a lot of dry roughage (hay), they are more susceptible to colic.
If you are feeding good quality hay, and I stress good quality, your horse should not need supplemented with grain. However, if you do supplement you horse’s diet with grain, you will give your horse extra energy. This energy will be used by your horse’s body to maintain a good body weight. Energy and proper body weight are important for good horse health as your horse maneuvers through the mud and snow. Poor quality hay will cause a lot of health problems for your horse. Also do not skimp on the amount of good quality hay you feed. Your horse is a natural forager. If your horse does not have hay to eat, your horse will become bored, this can lead to unwanted vices like cribbing and stall weaving. How many times have you gone into a horse barn and seen stalls destroyed by chewing horses. I can’t stress enough the importance of keeping good quality have in front of them to eat.
If you do not plan to ride your horse a lot during the winter and you want to save a little money, go ahead and pull off your horse’s shoes. But, if you do decide to let your horse be barefoot, make sure you have your horse’s hooves properly trimmed every four to six weeks. A professional farrier can advise you on a trimming schedule that meets your horse’s needs.
When riding your horse during the cold weather it is important to properly warm up your horse. This should be done slowly to allow their muscles a chance to warm and stretch. They are just like us, or maybe just like me, with aching muscles when exercised after being sedentary. If you and your horse are couch potatoes in the winter, when you start stressing their muscles in the spring you have a greater chance of causing lameness.
If you properly take care of your horse during the winter, your horse will be ready for your spring, summer and fall riding seasons. Enjoy your horse this winter and be safe.