With the cold weather the UK can experience over the winter months, H&C has decided to put together this article with tips and advice on dealing with horses in the colder months.
Though horses adapt well to the change in temperatures thought the year, there are certain things to watch out for over the winter.
When temperatures dip, the best heat source for horses is extra feed, particularly the hay or haylege in the diet. Hay digestion creates heat which helps horses to stay warmer. Though increasing the horse’s hay intake is very much recommended, it is not advisable to increase the hard feed intake - this may provide too much energy and could increase the risk of colic.
If horses living out are to be fed in a group in the field, make sure there are more piles of hay than there are horses in the field. This should ensure that they all get their fair share.
If horses are living out and not being fed any hard feed, ensure they have access to a salt or mineral lick to guarantee their dietary requirements are met.
Increased intake of hay or haylege means it is even more important than normal that horses have access to water at all times to ensure healthy digestion.
Water troughs in the field often freeze. Make sure the ice is broken and removed at least once a day. Placing a few tennis balls in the water can help prevent the trough from freezing, but if the winter is particularly cold, this may not work. Another good trick is to remove the ice and then float an apple or two in the water - the horse 'bobbing' for the apple will help to prevent the water freezing.
If the trough is portable, try moving it as close to the house or heat source as possible. Pouring a kettle full of bailing water into the trough once a day will also help to stave off the ice and ensure that the horses still have access to water.
Try to use rubber buckets rather than plastic wherever possible - plastic ones are more likely to shatter if the water inside them freezes.
Pour a kettle full of boiling water into waterbuckets last thing at night to prevent them freezing.
Stabled horses generally need rugging as they are not able to move around and keep warm like those who live out can.
Some horses will live out over the winter quite happily without a rug on, but this very much depends on the animal and the amount of condition they carry going into the colder months.
For any rugged horse, whether living in or out, it is important to remove the rug often to groom the horse and give him a thorough check over.
As long as horses have shelter from the elements, they should stay comfortable and healthy when temperatures plunge.
If a horse is living out, good natural shelter or a field shelter is essential. A south-facing three-sided shelter will help him through the roughest of winter weather. Make sure that the shelter is large enough for all the horses in the field to fit into to avoid fights or bullying.
Horses without rugs on must have somewhere they can get out of the rain – if a horse’s coat is not allowed to dry out properly, they can be at increased risk of rainscald or mud fever – both nasty bacteria that can lead to hair loss and infection if not treated quickly.
Riding outside in winter presents some additional challenges. Use an exercise rug or quarter sheet to keep the horse warm, and consider using boots for protection.
Avoid icy patches, and remember that frozen ground - even if it is not icy - is as hard as concrete.
Before riding in an outdoor arena, check the surface on foot so you can ride safely and accordingly.
Out hacking, be aware that the noise of ice crunching under car tyres can frighten a young or inexperienced horse, so only hack if it is safe to do so.
Spraying a layer or oil or Vaseline on the underside of horses’ feet can help to prevent snow balling up in the feet. Always carry a hoofpick and pick out horses’ feet as often as possible.
It is very important to keep horses warm after exercise, especially if they are clipped. Horses can easily catch a chill after hard work if they are not rugged to prevent them from losing heat too quickly and to keep them from catching a chill whilst still sweaty. It is also important to warm down properly after exercise.
If a horse is in hard work over the winter months, it may be a good idea to clip him. This will prevent him over heating during work and losing condition through sweating. There are various different types of clips, ranging from a simple bib and belly (useful for horses living out) to a full clip (for horses living in and in hard work). If a horse is clipped, it will then need to be rugged appropriately.
Winter months often involve feeding horses in the dark. It is very important that all feed is checked during daylight hours to ensure no mould food is fed.
Make sure horses feet are well cared for – correctly shod/trimmed feet will stand up better to the cold weather, hold less snow, and will provide better grip on slippery ground.
Ensure horses are not losing too much condition. It is normal for horses to lose a little weight over the winter months, but a thick winter coat can easily hide weight loss so it is important to touch and feel the horses to monitor winter weight.
If horses must cross a frozen yard or surface, the use of knee boots and/or hock boots may be advisable. Also, make sure that all icy surfaces are covered generously in grit or salt.
If horses are confined to their stables during particularly bad weather and are not able to be worked or turned out, consider cutting back on the hard feed the horse is given.
If horses are confined to barns or stables during spells of particularly bad weather, ensure they have sufficient ventilation to prevent the spread of diseases and illness and to ensure healthy breathing.
H&C advises all of you to stay safe and enjoy your winter riding!