Ensure horses have nutritious food, sufficient winter shelter

Water


Looming cold weather can present a different set of challenges than does caring for horses during summer. 


Horses need access to clean, fresh water during winter. Snow is not enough.


The average light horse, weighing 1,100 pounds, drinks up to 30 litres per day during summer. 


Horses that are primarily fed dry hay, which is often the case in winter, will need 60 litres or more. 


Horses would need to consume at least twice as much volume of snow to get the same amount of water, depending on snow density. 


It takes considerable energy to melt snow to body temperature, which would increase energy re-quirements. 


An insufficient water supply while feeding dry hay or cubes is a recipe for impaction colic because a shortage of moisture to rehydrate the dry feed material causes it to get stuck in the large bowel. 


Make sure water bowls are clean and ready for subzero temperatures. Water bowls should be drained, scrubbed with soap and water to re-move green slime, disinfected with diluted bleach and rinsed. 


Make sure horses have access to an alternative water source while you do this. Check the insulation, power supply, cords and heating elements and replace any worn parts. 


Nutritional requirements increase substantially during cold weather because horses spend a lot of energy keeping warm. 


High quality, dust- and mould-free hay is ideal because digesting this roughage generates substantial body heat. 


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Owners should stock enough hay to feed extra during cold snaps. As well, don’t forget to provide salt during winter. 


Nutritional requirements of horses in the winter will vary with weather conditions, activity level, pregnancy status and age. 


Supplemental feed such as grain can be added as necessary, although these create less direct heat generation than hay. 


Slow-feed hay nets have gained popularity in recent years. They are designed to reduce feed waste and give horses a more natural way to eat. 


Rather than putting hay bales in traditional feeders, the hay nets have small openings that prevent horses from eating quickly. They “graze” the bale at a rate similar to pasture grazing. Less hay is wasted. 


The nets also prevent the respiratory issues that occur when horses spends all day with their noses in a round bale inhaling dust and mould. 


Thick winter coats can mask body condition, so it is important to occasionally feel a horse’s ribs rather than just do a visual check. This will allow you to adjust for too little or too much feeding. 


There is much debate about whether to blanket horses during the winter. 


A general rule of thumb is that blanketing is a good idea if horses are in a wet climate where rain prevails rather than snow because their wet hair cannot insulate. 


Horses with thin coats such as some thoroughbreds or those that are clipped should be blanketed when outdoors. 


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Now is a good time to wash winter blankets and fix holes, broken buckles and other points of wear. 


Regardless of whether horses are blanketed, they need to have access to shelter, especially from wind. 


Inspect pens, alleyways and other areas for hazardous items that could be covered by snow, such as harrows. Tidy these up before snowfall to prevent injury. 


Talk about a winter plan and schedule with your farrier at the next trim.


Hoofs tend to grow slower in the winter, but regular trimming is still necessary. 


Some people prefer to have their horses go barefoot in the winter, while others use ice-ball preventing pads under their horses’ shoes. 


Fall is a great time to schedule a wellness examination with your veterinarian. A head to hoof check may reveal early disease than can be managed before cold weather hits. 


Ask specifically for a dental examination and if necessary, have a float performed. Properly maintained teeth can reduce wasted feed and the chance of colic. 


A vet can also do a fecal worm egg check to determine if deworming is necessary. 


Body condition can be assessed, and any nutritional modifications can be recommended. 


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There is no telling how long the last bit of warm weather will last, so take advantage of it to get you and your horse prepared for winter.

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger is a veterinary pathology resident at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan. Twitter: @DrJamieR_Vet


About the author

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger — Dr. Jamie Rothenburger, DVM, is a veterinarian who practices pathology and is a PhD student at the Ontario Veterinary College. Twitter: @JRothenburger

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