This morning saw the first frost here in the UK and colder weather is forecast for the weeks ahead as we move from autumn into winter. Whilst your horse can’t snuggle up in front of a roaring log fire with a mug of hot chocolate, there’s plenty you can do to make the wintertime more comfortable for him.
The most important thing you can do for your horse this winter is to make sure he receives enough good quality feedstuffs to keep his weight up and enough clean water to maintain his hydration.
Even if your horse is kept at grass, he will need hay or haylage to supplement him and this should make up at least 2 per cent of his body weight every day. Hay should be fed using a purpose-build hay rack so that it does not become trampled into muddy ground or blown away by the wind. If your horse spends more time stabled during the winter, you should offer him hay ad lib during the day to prevent boredom and to keep his digestive system ticking over as it would if he was grazing freely.
Horses burn calories to keep warm so an amount of hard feed and grains can be added to the diet. If grain is unsuitable for your horse, choose a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement instead and increase his hay ration.
During cold snaps, remember to check water buckets and troughs several times during the day to break ice. Always remove shards of icy and never leave a jagged edge through which the horse is expected to drink; ice can be extremely sharp and your horse could be injured.
Even if the weather is awful and you just don’t feel like it, your horse should still be exercised. Down-time leads to a decrease in muscular strength, cardiovascular fitness and overall flexibility even if you do turn out during the day. The older your horse is, the longer it will take for him to return to fitness during the spring so it’s important to keep the work routine going as best you can.
When the weather is colder, it takes longer for your horse to warm up his muscles so don’t ask for too much too soon in a schooling session. It’s a good idea to use an exercise sheet to keep his back and loins warm, especially when hacking out. Always make sure your horse is cooled off and dry before you put his rugs on after exercise.
Whether your horse needs a rug or not is due to a number of factors; his condition, his age, his breed and the amount of exercise you expect him to do. If your horse has a thick winter coat, lives out with a shelter to use and is only in very light work, he probably does not need a rug.
Horses that are in work and clipped or have thin skins will need rugging up, although care should be taken not to swaddle them in too many layers – just because you feel chilly, doesn’t necessarily mean that your horse will!
The winter environment can make some health conditions worse. The change in routine can cause some horses to colic and those used to living outside during the summer months may suffer from respiratory conditions when stabled for longer. Older horses with arthritis may stiffen up more readily than they would do if living out more.
These problems can be controlled by using prescribed medication and careful management.
Thrush in the hooves is a common problem when horses are stabled for longer, and cold, wet fields can cause mud fever and rain scald. Make sure that the horse’s feet are picked out at least twice during the day and any signs of thrush treated with iodine spray. Horses that are prone to mud fever should have their heels clipped out and dressed with Vaseline or some sort of barrier cream before they are turned out.
There is much you can do to make your horse’s winter a comfortable one. As always, if you are at all concerned about your horse’s health, consult your vet.
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