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Winter horse care tips

Grey Parks, TFC Equine Nutritionist 11/18/2020

Winter weather brings management challenges for horse owners. Here are some tips to help make winter horse care a bit easier.

Increase Forage in Cold Weather

Cold temperatures increase a horse’s calorie requirement by 1 percent for every degree below the Lower Critical Temperature (LCT). LCT is the point at which the horse starts using extra energy to maintain body temperature. This point varies depending on the horse’s age, health, and coat condition and may be as high as 50°F or as low as 5°F. The best way to meet this increased calorie need is by increasing the horse’s forage (hay) ration. Not only will this increase the horse’s calorie intake, but the digestion of forage generates heat that will help keep the horse warm. Most adult horses will consume 2 to 2.5 percent of their body weight under normal conditions; in cold weather, the same horse may eat up to 3 percent of its body weight in forages. As a best practice, supply free choice hay to all horses. Using small-hole hay nets is a great way to reduce waste while allowing horses to eat their fill of forage.

Monitor Water Intake

Water intake is just as important in cold weather as it is in hot conditions. As horses transition from pasture-based to hay-based diets, they need to drink more water to compensate for the lower moisture level in their forage. Adult horses usually drink 10 to 20 gallons of water per day. Horses may be reluctant to drink water that is below 40°F; using a heater helps to encourage water consumption in cold weather, but be sure all cords are out of reach of horses and protected from the elements and rodents. If your horse suddenly stops drinking from a heated bucket or trough, check the cord for fraying or shorts. Salt should also be provided free choice in the winter months; adding one tablespoon of salt to the horse’s grain meal can help encourage water consumption as well.

Manage muddy areas

Winter in Tennessee is usually very wet. Mud is an unavoidable part of winter farm life, and it can also be hazardous. Horses can slip and injure themselves in slick footing, and deep mud is notorious for causing loose or lost shoes. Horses that spend extended time in wet, muddy environments are more susceptible to infections like thrush, white line disease, rain rot, and scratches. Management practices, however, can reduce mud in and around horse facilities. Spread out high traffic areas — like water tanks, feeding areas, and gates — so horses don’t spend most of their day congregating in a single location. In small paddocks, remove manure and hay waste regularly. Avoid overgrazing your pastures and consider restricting horses to smaller “sacrifice” areas in wet weather to protect pastures from hoof damage. In sacrifice and high traffic areas, placing a layer of geotextile fabric covered by several inches of compacted screenings or crushed rock may be necessary to fully eliminate mud accumulation.

Consider blanketing

Healthy adult horses with full winter coats and access to shelter from wind and rain are unlikely to require blanketing during winter months. Horses that do not grow full winter coats because of illness or artificial lighting, or horses whose winter coats are clipped to avoid overheating during exercise, will require blanketing during inclement weather. Very old and very young horses are less capable of regulating their own body temperature and often require blanketing. Additionally, blanketing “hard keepers” can help them conserve energy and body weight. When blankets are used, it is important they fit well and are adjusted snugly for safety. A common mistake is adjusting blanket surcingles much too loosely; you should be able to easily slide your flat hand between the strap and the horse’s stomach. If you can fit a stacked hand or fist under the surcingle, then it is loose enough for a horse to get its hind leg caught while rolling. Choosing to blanket your horse also means committing to regular adjustments and changes. Tennessee winter weather is often unpredictable, with temperature swings of 20 to 30 degrees in a single day. A clipped horse may need only an uninsulated sheet on a sunny 45°F day but a medium-weight blanket overnight when the temperature dips to below freezing.

Winter weather requires extra attention and effort to keep your horses happy and healthy. Providing ample forage, ensuring access to palatable water, reducing mud, and providing shelter and/or blankets as needed are important management practices. Remember your local Co-op is an excellent source for all your winter horse care essentials.

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