As the temperatures begin to drop, and with more bad weather on its way, we need to prepare for all eventualities for our horses this month.
As we are part way into winter already, most horses will have already developed nice thick winter coats, but if they are in work this winter they have likely already been clipped out, so rugging is an important factor to consider. The horse begins to grow his winter coat as early as July, moulting out the finer summer coat in early October time. This moult is activated by the length of the day light hours, the winter coat starts to grow as the number of daylight hours decrease, and the summer coat starts to come through again when the day light hours start to increase once again in January. Even if rugged, if a horse is outside they will still be exposed to all the wind, rain and cold of winter, which can result in a chill if they are not rugged enough. To avoid this scenario, ensure that you are checking your horse’s temperature level several times a day in relation to the weather. It is likely that they will need extra layers of rugs at night, and then these can be decreased in the day in order to prevent sweating which can also result in a chill setting in.
Some ponies benefit from losing a bit of condition in the winter months, as they would naturally do in the wild. However other types of horse, for example, Thoroughbred types will be prone to weight loss over the winter months. The thick winter coat of the native pony however can hide a faster condition loss, so make sure you are sinking your hands into that thick coat daily to see if you can feel the pony’s ribs. You should be able to feel the ribs with a light pressure from your hand, if you have to press a little harder to find them, the horse is likely overweight so won’t need any extra food at this time; but if you can feel them easily without any added pressure, the horse is likely underweight and needs a bit more food to help them counter the cold. Regulating their body temperature to keep them warm requires a lot of energy from the horse, if they are rugged up adequately the energy needed for this is decreased. Be careful with adding too many conditioning type feed stuffs to the ration in the winter; as horses are likely to be stabled more in these months, it could result in those of a more flighty temperament becoming a little excited. Try and increase the calorie intake through hay and other forage sources in the first place before adding in the more concentrated feed stuffs. The average 500kg horse in light work should eat between 1.5% and 2% of their body weight in feed per day to maintain their weight. If you are at all concerned about your horse’s weight this winter, all the large feed companies have telephone help lines where you can talk to an expert nutritionist about your horse’s needs.
Some horses live outside all year round, and these horses need special consideration given to their shelter requirements in the winter. In the summer months, trees and natural shelter provide shade and relief from flies, however in the winter they are not enough to protect the horse from cold, rain and icy temperatures. In addition to correct rugging with waterproof turnout rugs, ensure that your horse has somewhere to get out of the worst of the weather. Field shelters are perfect and can provide the horse with somewhere warm and dry to stand as the weather begins to close in.
As the temperature drops, frozen taps are a common annoyance on most yards! The ritual of taking it in turns to defrost the hose every morning is probably well known to a lot of horse owners out there. However frozen water sources can result in Colic in the winter months, as horses fail to drink large enough volumes of water to keep their guts moving well, resulting in impaction Colic. Make sure that your horse has access to clean, unfrozen water at all times. Store water in containers if you are likely to have frozen taps in the morning, wrap these containers in old rugs or place them in the straw barn to make sure they aren’t frozen when you need them. In addition, take a thermos flask filled with hot water with you to the stables to add to the horse’s water buckets to take the chill off. Some horses won’t drink very cold water, so a drop of hot water, and also a splash of apple juice can tempt those who are reluctant to drink in the winter. The University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine conducted a research project which concluded that in cold temperatures, if horses purely have access to warm water, they will drink a considerably greater volume each day compared to if only offered cold water. However, if they have both warm and cold water available they will drink almost entirely from the cold water, and drink a lower volume. Therefore, if you want to keep your horse’s water intake up in cold weather, make sure you provide warm water by using bucket heaters or adding warm water a few times a day. If this isn’t a possibility, adding electrolytes to your horse’s feed will encourage them to drink up.
Riding can seem a little off-putting in the cold, wet and often windy weather we experience in this country, but it is important to keep your horse fit and strong if they are used to being in work the rest of the year. Reducing your horse’s work load to purely paddock turnout if they are used to more regular structured exercise will lead to a reduction in fitness, flexibility and strength. However we all know that keeping a horse fit in the winter months can be difficult. If you have snow, try smearing the undersides of your horse’s hooves with vaseline, this will stop the snow balling in their hooves when they are out, and will prevent slips and falls. Try and ride in areas that are non-slippery and dry, if you are lucky enough to have an indoor arena this wont be a worry! Outdoor arenas may well become water logged at this time of year so be careful to avoid straining limbs when riding in wet arenas. Take care when out hacking, and try to stick to gravel paths or grassy areas if roads are icy. When exercising your horse in cooler temperatures, concentrate on getting their muscles warm and supple before trying any more difficult work. Try riding with an exercise blanket when warming up and cooling down to prevent muscle damage. And finally make sure your horse is cool and dry before putting them back in the field, or re-rugging in the stable.
The dreaded Mud Fever is the bane of many a horse owners winter, but how do you manage the dreaded infection whilst turning your horse out and allowing them to be horses? Mud Fever (also known as Equine Pastern Dermatitis) is a very common skin condition in horses, caused by wet muddy conditions. Mud Fever is characterised by scabs and cracks, primarily found around the heels and backs of the pasterns, but they can extend up the entire lower limb. These scabs can have many presentations, from little dry flaky scabs, to thick crusty lesions which cause swellings around the limb. The hair can become matted in these scabs and then progresses to fall off. This condition can result in lameness as the skin on the horse’s legs become sore and infected. In order to prevent Mud Fever, the skin needs to be kept clean and dry. This is difficult to achieve in the winter, and is usually only possible if the horse is stabled and has barn or school turn out available to them. If Mud fever has set in wash the area with disinfectant and get all of the mud off the limb, this will also help to soften any scabs and remove them from the area. Rinse the disinfectant off after 10 minutes as they can irritate the skin if left on too long, and then dry the leg with a towel, making sure it is fully dry. Once the leg is dry, apply an antibacterial or corticosteroid cream to the affected legs. Many Mud Fever creams are available from your local saddlery, but if in doubt consult your vet and they will be able to supply you with their preferred method of treatment. Repeat this cleansing procedure until the area is clear of scabs. In order to prevent Mud Fever taking hold, you need to make sure that your horse is in as clean and dry an environment as possible. Many barrier creams are available to protect your horse’s legs from the wet, and there are also supplements available to add to your horse’s feed to protect them from the inside out. The most effective technique though is to be dedicated, as soon as you spot any signs of the dreaded Mud Fever, treat it and consult your veterinary surgeon.