Winter can be a challenging time when caring for horses, but this year seems to be especially hard work. The spring was late coming in and the summer was incredibly wet. Now winter has hit hard and yes we did get a slightly late summer eventually, which made life a little easier and delayed the grass dying back. But winter is definitely here now.
So what can we do to make life a bit easier with the dark nights, wet days and long periods spent sheltering from the rain or stuck in a stable (the horse, not you).
In this article i have looked at five specific areas that affect horses (and their owners)
Feeding Horses in Winter
The first challenge once the grass has disappeared is to source good quality feed that will provide the correct nutritional needs and ensure that your horse or pony doesn’t lose too much condition. According to a recent article in the Horse and Hound a good doer may also ned to lose a few pounds and the winter time can be the natural way for their body shape to lose condition naturally.
Most horses tend to be fed fodder such as hay or haylage during the winter months, however the nutritional value of hay can vary from bale to bale. In recent article from the Kentucky Equine Research they suggested that the colour of hay can be a strong indicator of its nutrition content.
Green Hay – Very nutritional and rich for horses (so overweight horses will need to be monitored)
Yellow Hay – Can be a sign that the grass was over mature when cut and has a reduced nutrition content
Brown Hay – Rarely of good nutrition and potentially susceptible to fungal infections and mould.
Winter Hard Feed
If your horse is stabled and working hard or in competitions then their diet will most likely need to have hard feed as well as the hay/haylage to ensure that they don’t lose too much energy.
Horses that can have a lot of fizz during the winter should ideally have their feed in the form of highly-digestable fibre, such as alfalfa or sugar beet, since oats and barley can make them very buzzed up.
Older horses may also find eating forage is too difficult to chew and may need additional support through high fibre cubes that can be soaked.
Providing Water For Horses In Winter
You have probably heard that water for horses should be heated during winter to ensure that they drink sufficient, however it seems that actually the research shows that horses will drink warmer water if that is all there is available, but given a choice they prefer colder water. If you have concerns that your horse might not be drinking enough then provide only warmer water and they should drink more.
The research also showed that horses tend to drink water straight after eating hard feed, and within an hour of eating hay. Some horses have also been observed soaking their own hay.
One of the problems of insufficient water is that it can lead to a form of colic.
There tend to be three options for keeping horses during winter
- Keep them turned out full time
- Keep them stabled and exercised or turned out for a few hours or so a day
- Keep them part stabled (at night) and turned out during the day.
Choosing which option to take can depend on a number of factors, such as the age and fitness of the horse, the facilities and resources that you have available and the temperament of the horse or pony.
I have two horses, one which loves to be stabled and is disgusted at being out in the rain, the other could stand out in the rain all day and loves it, and hates to be kept in a stable.
Stabled horses should still be turned out daily even if it is just for an hour, in order to let them stretch and relieve boredom. Stabled horses can be more prone to illnesses and injury than horses kept outside. Stabled horses can also experience respiratory problems especially if the stable is not well ventilated.
Keeping a horse warn is not usually a problem even in wet and cold countries like Ireland. Most horses develop thick winter coats that also protect them from the rain. However the torrential downpours and storms often mean that horse owners will rug up their horses to offer some protection, especially if they cannot move very far due to waterlogged fields or being stabled for long periods.
This article on Horse Rugs offers more information on rugging horses, including a revolutionary new rug that automatically regulates the temperature of the horse by providing natural air movement and preventing overheating.
Remember horses should not feel toasty warm underneath their blanket especially if they are standing still. Otherwise when they start moving this will raise their temperature further and cause potential overheating.
Winter Ailments That Can Affect Horses
One of the difficulties of winter weather is that it is constantly wet and muddy, which are ideal conditions for bacteria to thrive in. Some other articles on this site have covered different ailments and can be found at these links
Another problem from Autumn are the sycamore leaves that may still affect horses in Winter with Sycamore Poisoning. This is potentially lethal and important to guard against.
Injuries caused by being confined to a stable or lack of exercise in winter can include tendon injuries or stiff joints.
Dealing with Boredom in Horses
One of the biggest challenges for stable kept ponies and horses can be coping with long days and nothing much to do. This might be fine for the sedentary Mare who is in her late teens (she tends to last about an hour outside before desperately looking to come back in), but for younger horses this can be especially tough.
One of the simplest ways to entertain your horse, if the weather doesn’t permit them to go outside, is to have a stable toy.
The following toy is from the Likit collection. It is suspended from the ceiling and is an ideal distraction especially for food motivated horses.
Although Likit and other treats can be bought in containers and left with the horse, I know from my own experience that very food orientated horses can just spend the day eating directly from them. The advantage with a device such as this is that it stimulates the horse’s mind to solve the puzzle and it prevents the food being fully available to them all the time.
Exercising Horses in Winter
Finally, trying to exercise horses is especially challenging once the weather turns bad. However winter an also be an ideal time to start to teach your horse those tricks you’ve seen on TV or at the big events. here are a couple of handy ones in the following video by Ute Lehmann from horseinharmony.dk.
If you have any other suggestions for winter care or any questions about looking after your horse in winter, please feel free to leave a comment below.
If you have any health concerns about your horse or pony be sure to consult an appropriate veterinary expert.