Most animals that live outside need special care during the coldest months of the winter, and horses are no exception.
Maintenance of the hooves is as important during the winter months as it is the rest of the year. Many horses encounter problems with their feet in winter because the owner fails to stick to a regular schedule of maintenance with a farrier (horseshoer).
Dr. R. Dean Scoggins, an equine Extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, says, "If the horse is not going to be ridden at all during the winter months, it may be advisable to remove the horse shoes completely." This provides more traction for the horse on slippery surfaces, and it prevents snow from balling up on the bottom of the foot.
Maintaining a deworming schedule is also important over the winter months because equine parasites are not easily killed by cold weather. Equine parasites can often withstand frigid temperatures much more easily than the hot dry climate of summer.
Because horses are naturally outdoor animals, it is fine for them to be out during the coldest parts of the year, as long as they have shelter to go to if the weather gets too bad. Dr. Scoggins says, "Frequently you will drive down the road and see horses standing out in a snow storm with an open shelter right there." This is because horses are somewhat claustrophobic by nature. They have to learn that it is safe to go into a shed and may prefer to stand out in the elements.
If a horse is not being worked regularly during the winter months, it is preferable to avoid using blankets to keep the horse warm. If blankets are used on a regular basis, then the horse will not grow a thick hair coat, which is important to protect the horse from the cold temperatures. If a blanket is used on a regular basis at the beginning of winter, then it must be used throughout the cold months to compensate for the thin hair coat.
However, if a horse is worked regularly a blanket is encouraged because the horse can become overheated during exercise if its hair coat is too thick. Another way to inhibit the hair growth is to provide 16 hours of daylight per day using a 60 to 100 watt bulb, followed by at least 6 hours of darkness per night. Dr. Scoggins says, "This method will trick the horse into thinking that it is summertime, and the hair coat will either not grow or will shed early."
After hard work, horses are often hot and sweaty. When it is very cold outside, it is very important that the horse be dried thoroughly and that the hair is brushed so that it stands up. This prevents the sweat from causing a chill, which can lead to illness. The brushed hair provides the horse with insulation against the cold.
Horses may need more calories to sustain them through the cold months as well. An all-you-can-eat, high-quality diet of hay should be provided. The hay is not only important for the normal functioning of the gastrointestinal system of the horse, but the digestion process also generates heat. The horse may also need an increase in grain in its diet to ensure that it is getting enough calories.
Lastly, one of the most important factors in caring for your horse in winter is the availability of water. Not only is frozen water unavailable for drinking, but horses will also avoid drinking water if it is too cold. It is possible to increase a horse's intake of water by 60 percent or more if water is maintained at around 65 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
By paying attention to the needs of your horse during winter months you can ensure that your horse stays healthy and ready for a productive spring. If you have questions about taking care of your horse during the winter, please contact your local equine veterinarian.
© copywrite 2003 Reprinted with permission
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Ann Marie Falk
University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine