10 Tips for Keeping your Horse Healthy in Fall and Winter
Here in the northern hemisphere, the leaves are changing and autumn is setting in. Even though the hours of daylight are dwindling, I love this time of year. It’s a time to rest, reflect, and plan for the coming year.
As we move into the colder months though, I’ve learned that there are some important things to remember to ensure our horses stay healthy. Most horses are naturally well-equipped for cold weather, but they can benefit from a little help on our part.
Here are ten tips for keeping your horse healthy this fall and winter:
1. Invest in heated water buckets or a stock tank heater. Horses tend to drink less when it’s colder outside and this can lead to serious problems–aka, impaction colic. To encourage your horse to drink, provide a warmer water source for him. (I love the heated buckets!) Water between 45 and 65 degrees farenheit is best.
2. Feed loose salt either free choice or in your horse’s feed ration to encourage drinking. This should actually be done all year long to meet the horse’s sodium and chloride needs. Some people may assume that since the horse isn’t sweating in winter, he doesn’t need salt. This is not true and could be detrimental for your horse.
4. Feed a high-quality pre- or probiotic as your horse transitions from grass to hay. Probiotics add beneficial bacteria in the gut to aid the digestive process. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are basically food for those good bacteria (so they can do their job). Either one of them can help with feed transitions such as that from grass to hay. You can read more about pre and probiotics in this post.
5. Don’t blanket a healthy horse. Yes, you read that right! If a horse is allowed to grow a good winter coat, it will be just as good, if not better than a blanket. Additionally, don’t trim the hair in your horse’s ears, around his muzzle, and on his fetlocks, as this hair helps to keep the horse warm too. (Read more about blanketing horses in this post.)
6. As temperatures drop, increase your horse’s forage, not his concentrates to help him stay warm. Here is an excerpt from an article published by The University of Maine:
“Forages contain a much higher fiber content than grains. Fiber is utilized through bacterial fermentation within the cecum and large intestine. Much more heat is produced in bacterial fiber fermentation than in digestion and absorption of nutrients within the small intestine (cereal grains). This results in a greater amount of heat being produced through the utilization of forages than utilization of grain. Thus, a horse’s increased energy requirements are better met by providing horses all the forage they will consume without waste.”
When temperatures really drop, here is a good rule of thumb: For every 10 degrees F it is below freezing (32 degrees), increase your horse’s hay ration by 10%.
7. Provide shelter of some sort for your horse. Horses do not need to be stalled in colder weather, but they do need access to some type of shelter from the wind and rain. Shelter can be a barn, lean-to, or even a thick grove of trees.
8. Monitor grass intake (especially in the fall) for horses with insulin resistance, equine metabolic syndrome, or who are laminitis-prone. Near or below freezing temperatures stress the grass and cause a rise in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC’s). Don’t assume grass is safe just because it’s brown! At-risk horses may need to be muzzled or kept off pasture, even during colder weather.
9. Maintain regular hoof care. Just because you may not be riding your horse as much doesn’t mean you should neglect your horse’s hoof care. Horses’ feet continue to grow in the fall and winter (although many say at a slower rate), so they will still need regular maintenance trimming. Barefoot hooves provide the best traction in ice and snow, so if your horse is shod, pulling the shoes is a very wise idea.
10. Pay extra attention to older horses who may have trouble maintaining their weight in winter. Older horses may have trouble eating and digesting hay, so hay substitutes such as hay cubes or beet pulp may be needed. If needed, you can make your own ‘senior feed’ by mixing 2 parts alfalfa pellets, 1 part steamed oats, 1 part beet pulp, and 1 part wheat bran. Feed 12 lbs of this mix per day (divided into 3-4 meals) for 500 kg horse.