Thursday, October 15, 2009

Winter Care for Horses

With snow already hitting the ground in the northeast and out west, this is a timely article by my friend Ann Swinker, PhD, Extension Equine Specialist, from the Penn State University, State College. (I slightly edited it to fit) The horse above is my half-Arab gelding, Sonny. He's semi-retired in central NJ at Apple Brook Farm. He's looking good for 30 yrs old! Thanks Beth!!

Winter Care for Horses

About the worst thing for a horse during the winter months is ice that covers the watering trough or water bucket. Mature horses need about 10 gallons of water a day. Excessively cold water will decrease the horses’ consumption of water. Ideally, water should be maintained at a temperature of 40 degrees F. When the horse drinks less water, feed intake will decrease resulting in less energy being available to maintain body temperature and body weight during the cold months. Reduced feed and water intake could lead to colic and an impacted intestinal tract in the horse.

Heated waterers are one way to assure your horse an ample supply of drinking water. If electric water heaters are used, the water tank should be checked every day to insure that the heater is not shorting out and shocking the horse, which would prevent the horse from drinking.

SHELTER: The horse has two natural defenses against cold, a long hair coat and a layer of fat beneath the skin. The long winter hair coat serves as insulation by reducing the loss of body heat and provides the first line of defense against the cold. Its insulating value is lost when the horse becomes wet and/or is covered with mud. This is why it is important to provide a dry sheltered area in cold, wet weather and regular grooming. In damp weather, be alert for rain rot and other skin problems. If unchecked, rain rot can result in hair loss and irritation to the horse

While horses need shelter from cold winds, rain and snow, it is not necessary to keep them in a closed barn throughout the winter. Horses kept outdoors in the winter with access to a run-in shed that opens away from the normal wind patterns, will generally have fewer respiratory disease problems than horses kept in poorly ventilated, heated barns. With a three-sided shed, the horse can take shelter during a rain or snowstorm and its insulating hair remains dry and fluffed. Horses maintained in an enclosed barn should be exercised regularly, to maintain muscling and health.

Show horses with hair coats that are artificially short should not be turned outside in bitter winter cold without protection of a blanket or windbreak. If you do have a show horse that is housed in a barn during most of the winter, the barn should be adequately ventilated in order to reduce the risk of respiratory disease. Even in cold weather horses frequently prefer to be outdoors. The horse, when given the opportunity, will acclimate to cold temperatures without much difficulty.

NUTRITION: Cold weather is a real stress as the horse generates enough heat to provide body warmth during the coldest of weather. A horse's nutritive needs will be higher when it is minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, than it will be when the temperatures are around 50 degrees.

Vitamin, mineral and protein requirements will still depend upon the horse’s age and physiological status. The horse should be fed according to body condition. Thin horses should be fed some supplemental grain in addition to good quality hay to assure enough energy to produce warmth, while a fat horse will require little or no increase from their fall diet. Most mature horses that are idle and in good flesh can survive the winter quite well on good quality hay and ample clean water.

Horses will generally consume 1 to 1 ½ pounds of hay per 100 pounds of body weight and if needed ½ to 1½ pounds of grain per 100 lbs of body weight. If a horse is not maintaining good body condition or is performing some work, grain should be added to the diet. If you must supplement your hay with grain, one of the safest of grains to feed is oats. However, corn contains twice as much energy as an equal volume of oats therefore a small amount of corn added to the diet will increase the energy supply. Contrary to popular belief corn does not produce heat; it produces energy that can later be converted to heat. It is the digestion of the hay that quickly produces the heat. However, for the thin horse, corn will provide the energy needed to keep the horse in good body condition and provides the energy needed for work.

Do not overfeed. Overfeeding can cause too much weight gain during the winter, and lead to laminitis and other health problems in the spring.

Vitamin and mineral requirements are a year-round concern. All horses should have access to trace mineralized salt to meet their electrolyte and trace mineral needs. Adequate levels of vitamins are present in sufficient amounts in good quality horse feed, especially in well-preserved green hay. However, if the hay appears brown, weathered and the hay quality is questionable, additional vitamin supplementation may be needed. A commercial vitamin mineral supplement can be used to provide what is missing from the hay.

FINAL NOTES: One important aspect of care that often is neglected is hoof care. Even though you are not regularly riding the horse, the hooves still grow during the winter months. In addition, the horse is traveling on uneven, frozen ground that can crack and break feet. Have the shoes removed and the hooves trimmed before turning the horse out for winter, and have the feet trimmed on a regular basis. This insures that when spring arrives, the horse will have sound hooves that will be capable of holding a shoe. Also, be on the alert for the presence of lice and mites. Parasites, both internal and external, can be heavily implicated by winter.

The important thing is—do not just turn horses out and forget about them. Every day at every feeding, horses should receive at least a visual examination.

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