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Winter Horsekeeping

The most dreaded time of year for us horse folks is drawing near, and we must prepare! No matter what part of the country you find yourself in, winter will require a different approach to horsekeeping than summer did. If you are fortunate enough to live a bit farther south than the Colorado Rocky Mountains, the change from summer to winter will be less noticeable, but will nevertheless require a bit of a preparation. This post will be aimed more towards those of us who are not fortunate enough (or smart enough) to live somewhere hospitable; however, much of the information contained here will also be relevant to our horse-owner brethren in warmer climates. Read on to make sure you're doing everything possible now to make winter hit a little less hard.



All horses should have long since received the core vaccines that are season-specific, such as Equine Influenza, Equine Herpes Virus, and West Nile Virus (to name a few). However, there are some vaccines whose timeliness is less urgent that some veterinarians and horse owners may choose to put off until fall to avoid overloading the horse's immune system in the spring any more than absolutely necessary. For example, I will usually wait to get my horses vaccinated for rabies until the fall. Many vets like to administer the rhino vaccine more than once a year, so horses may need this one again in the fall, too, even if they have received it in the spring. Make sure to set up an appointment with your veterinarian to receive any vaccinations that your horse may be missing, preferably before the really bad weather settles in so that if your horse is the type to feel a little off after getting vaccinated he won't have to feel crappy in the cold. If you're not sure which vaccines he got in the spring and what he may be missing, call and find out. Your vet will have on record what shots your horse received and be able to advise you on the ones he needs.

It's not a bad idea to also start thinking about deworming before the bad weather hits. Your horse will need all the calories he can get to help him stay warm, and a parasite burden combined with the onset of sub-zero temperatures can result in rapid weight-loss for your equine buddy, particularly if he's older. When in doubt, you can always confer with your vet when he comes out to vaccinate your horse. He may recommend a fecal egg count or be able to tell you what kind of dewormer is advisable for your specific region. In my neck of the woods, I always make sure that the dewormer I use in the late summer or fall is effective against bots since those tend to be very prolific in this part of the world in the summer. Read the indications and directions for administration on the tube of dewormer (found at most feed stores or vet supply stores) rather than just buying the first one you see and administering it blindly to your horse. Also beware of stables that require mass deworming of every resident at the same time and on the same dewormer without any actual proof of parasites. Most evidence points to this practice being overdone and outdated, and mindful horse owners and veterinarians are mostly leaning towards a more specifically-tailored deworming approach that looks at each individual horse's risk factors, parasite burden and management before deciding on an appropriate response.


Hoof care

Your summer riding schedule and your winter one are likely to be quite different, not to mention the footing you're riding on. Make sure your horse's foot-care regimen reflects any change in his activity levels, as well as the anticipated difference in surface conditions. A full set of metal shoes, for instance, might be a good idea for a highly active trail horse being ridden over rocky terrain all summer, but this same footwear in the winter might be unnecessary and even dangerous. A horse's hoof is naturally designed to provide traction over different kinds of surfaces, so he's usually better equipped to handle slippery footing unencumbered by man-made interventions such as horseshoes. The characteristic "ice balls" that can present a danger to your horse are also less likely to form in an unshod foot, and if they do form, they will come out more easily as the hoof naturally expands and contracts during movement. Almost all horses benefit from spending at least some of the time barefoot, anyway, so winter is an excellent excuse to let his feet be natural! If you must leave your horse shod in the winter and you live where there's snow and ice, you'll definitely have to invest in some sort of traction-adding device, such as borium studs, as well as snow-pads (pads designed to prevent the buildup of snow in the horse's shoe).

Most horses' feet will grow faster in the summer than in the winter as a result of the increased exercise during the nicer months. If this is the case for your horse, you can probably look forward to a few more days or weeks between farrier visits once cold weather comes. Whatever you decide to do, don't simply neglect to attend to your horse's hoof care in the winter--even if he looks as if he doesn't have much excess growth--as any imbalances he may have will only get worse if left to his own devices. Your farrier will not only help keep your horse in balance, he will also be able to help you find and prevent any lurking hoof conditions, such as thrush or abscesses. Confer with your vet and farrier if you have any questions about what to do with your horse's feet as the cold weather draws closer.



A horse who's underweight is going to have a significantly harder time staying warm than his plumper buddies, putting him at risk for additional weight loss as he burns calories trying to heat himself and thus creating a vicious cycle. The dangerous thing about a horse losing weight in the winter time is that a thick winter coat may make it hard to notice his worsening condition early enough to deal with it. Ensuring your horse is adequately fed up before going into winter will increase his chances of maintaining an appropriate physical condition throughout the less hospitable months.

Conversely, an overweight horse--or an "easy keeper"--is in danger of becoming more so during bad weather since it's unlikely that his exercise will increase when the temperature dips. Also, conscientious horse owners and caretakers tend to (and should!) feed a bit extra in the winter since the act of digesting hay--specifically, fermentation in the cecum--has a whole-body warming effect for the horse. Reduced exercise plus increased caloric intake is a bad formula for an already overweight animal, and being fat in the winter increases his chances of musculoskeletal injury if he slips on ice or gets stuck in a snowbank, not to mention the metabolic havoc it wreaks on his body no matter what time of year it is.

To be able to identify problems with your horse's weight, it is a good idea to become familiar with the Body Condition Scoring (BCS) system (check out this website for a good description and lot of pictures on BCS). The BCS is a scale that was developed in order to give veterinarians and horse owners an objective way to talk about a horse's body weight, rather than just saying "thin" or "fat." A horse will be scored between one and nine, with one being emaciated, nine being the fattest a horse can be, and five being moderate (neither fat nor thin). Before cold weather hits, your horse's BCS should be evaluated and, if necessary, his diet and weight addressed with the help of your veterinarian or some other trusted equine professional.


The good ol' once over

Fall is a good (or great) time to get out into your pastures (if you have them) and do some foot-work to find and repair any downed fences, fill in gopher holes, find and nourish/reseed any overgrazed areas in your grass, turn your compost pile and prune trees whose branches may not support heavy snow. Once the area is covered in the white stuff, most of these chores will be unpleasant if not impossible. Ice-coated tree branches can fall, damaging your enclosures, and even if your pasture is treeless, a weakened fence can meet its demise in a heavy and wet snowstorm, leaving livestock at risk for injury as they try to cross a downed fence line covered in snow.

If your horse is kept mainly in a stall, it wouldn't hurt to make sure your barn is in good repair before the nasty weather hits, either. Roofs are a particularly risky business in a snowstorm if they are not up to the task of holding the weight that can accumulate there. Make sure all support beams and other structurally-significant areas of your barn are not rotted or chewed through by equines-turned-beavers, and that you finish up any weather-sensitive tasks you may have started in the summer, such as painting or leveling dirt floors. You don't want to stare at half-finished projects all winter long, wishing you could get a break in the weather to finish them.

If you have automatic waterers, now is the time to make sure any leaks are fixed since there's only so much you can do once everything freezes. If you must install heaters, don't wait until the first hard freeze to discover that you are one heater short or that mice have chewed through your extension cords. While you're at it, make sure your hay barn is cleaned out, weather-proofed, and prepared to be restocked before the weather makes it difficult to do so.

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