Caring for your horse over winter
Is curling up in a blanket, with a hot chocolate, beside a crackling fireplace the dream scenario for you? Or would you prefer soaking up sunshine while sinking your toes into warm sand, beside a sparking sea?
Whichever scene suits you, as a horse owner, you’ll still need to brave the wild winter weather to care for your horse.
The good news? Horses are amazing at coping with the cold! It’s torrential rain and biting winter winds that horses hate – along with horrible, sludgy mud. Let’s explore ways of caring for your horse over winter…
Not all parts of the UK get snowfall, flooding, strong winds, etc. However, most livery yards are located along winding country lanes, which increases the risk of roadways being left ungritted and trees falling to block roads. Icy conditions and extra hazards can make taking care of our horses a big risk. There may be times you can’t drive your car or catch public transport to the stables due to bad weather.
So, planning ahead to ensure your horse is cared for if you can’t get to them is essential – it also puts your mind at ease that they’re safe and happy!
Here are some suggestions:
- If your yard owner lives on site, discuss the possibility of putting your horse onto full livery during the days you can’t get there.
- Speak to a friend, who also keeps their horse on the yard, to work out a system for sharing the care of each other’s horses if the weather stops either of you from getting to the stables.
- Have a chat with your vet about ways to keep your horse healthy when winter weather takes a turn for the worse.
Also, be careful while driving in wintry conditions. Visit the Met Office cold weather and driving page for advice about travelling safely during winter months.
Feeding your horse
Our horses use energy from the fibre they eat to generate heat. So, ensuring your horse has hay or haylage to eat at all times is essential – especially during winter months!
According to B&W Equine Vets, cases of impaction colic are common during cold weather because horses drink less water.
To lower the risk of colic, it’s important your horse has constant access to fresh, clean water that isn’t frozen.
Tips to try saving your horse’s water from freezing:
- Consider using larger (food-safe, non-toxic) water containers – larger containers take longer to freeze.
- Place one water bucket inside a bigger bucket and fill the outer bucket with clean shavings or bags of freshly soiled bedding – it may sound strange, but clean shavings or the heat from your horse’s recently ruined bedding could help to insulate the inner water bucket.
- You can leave your tap on – if you have the facilities, and the livery yard owner agrees, you could place an enormous water container beneath the tap and keep water trickling to prevent it from getting frozen; you’ll also have an extra water supply in the container in case pipes do freeze!
- Remove ice from water buckets – water will stay thawed for longer if you remove pieces of ice from it.
- Refill buckets with water that’s above freezing – by adding water to your horse’s bucket that’s at a temperature above freezing, you’ll extend the amount of time before it freezes.
For more information about colic and what symptoms to look out for, visit our article about colic in horses.
If you think your horse may have colic, please contact your vet immediately.
Keeping fields safe
Although it’s always important to check field fences frequently, harsh winter weather can cause damage to fencing.
Provided it’s safe to do so, try walking the field perimeter every day to make sure it’s safe for your horse.
Something else to consider is the gateway. Field gateways get extremely muddy during the winter. It’s worth taking steps to make field gateways safer for your horse:
- Adding drainage to gateways can reduce muddiness (if keeping your horse at a livery yard, the yard owner would be responsible for organising this).
- Putting a heavy-duty grass mat across the gateway.
- Have arena surface material (such as rubber chippings) spread across gateways (again, this would be the decision of your yard owner).
- Use concrete to protect the gateway from mud and give horses somewhere solid to stand (another action that’ll depend on your yard owner!).
If your horse spends winter in the field with their friends, it’s essential they have suitable, safe shelter.
Field shelters that are permanent structures will require planning permission to build. So, if you’re a yard owner, it’s important you contact the relevant authorities to find out the type of field shelters you can create in your horses’ fields.
Some field shelters are ‘mobile’, meaning they often won’t require planning permission to set up because they can be moved around the field. It’s worth contacting local equine building companies for advice.
Whichever type of field shelter you choose, it’s important the shelter is kept clean and is checked daily to ensure it is safe for your horse.
Managing mud fever
Although it isn’t contagious and cannot spread from horse to horse, mud fever can be extremely irritating for horses who suffer with it.
What is mud fever?
Also known as ‘dermatitis’, mud fever causes horses to have greasy, cracked skin which can scab. Mud fever is seen more often in winter because wet, muddy conditions allow your horse’s skin to become soft, which enables bacteria to enter and irritate their lower legs.
Symptoms of mud fever:
- Broken skin.
- Hair loss.
- Red, raw patches of skin.
- Discharge oozing from their skin.
- Crusty scabs.
- Heat, pain, and/or swelling around their heels and/or lower legs.
- Some horses refuse to let anyone touch their lower legs due to the pain.
If you’re worried your horse may have mud fever, contact your vet to rule out any underlying skin conditions (e.g. fungal infections, mites, wounds, etc.).
Once your horse has developed mud fever, there are several ways to ease their discomfort:
- Keep your horse’s legs clean and dry by letting them spend more time in their clean, dry stable instead of a muddy, waterlogged field.
- Gently clean your horse’s lower legs twice a day with diluted (watered-down), skin-safe, equine disinfectant and carefully pat their legs dry with a clean towel afterwards.
- Consider clipping their thick, long feathers (leg hair) to make mud fever more manageable.
Preventing mud fever
Prevention is better than cure!
Your horse might avoid mud fever if:
- You check their legs every day for any signs of mud fever, and act quickly if you do see any signs of it.
- They’re only standing in a muddy field for a short time.
- Their fields are managed to prevent them from becoming too muddy.
- You avoid washing their legs when bringing them in from the field, and instead remove the dried mud with a soft brush.
- You thoroughly dry their legs with a clean towel when their legs need to be washed.
- You use a special cream designed to protect your horse’s legs from mud fever – though only apply barrier creams to clean, dry skin!
- They’re visited by a vet who can assess for underlying health problems that might put them at risk of developing mud fever.
Stabling your horse
Livery yard owners sometimes prefer horses not to use fields during wet weather to prevent damage to the ground and to preserve grazing.
While your horse is stabled during freezing weather, there are steps you can take to keep them as comfortable as possible:
- Insulate the floor with rubber matting.
- Provide them with a thick, comfortable bed of shavings (or other suitable bedding type!).
- Check the stable for any cold draughts and block them if necessary.
- Ensure your horse can peer over their stable door to enjoy some fresh air.
Horses who are stood in their stable for a long time can get bored and start to damage their stable or develop stereotypical behaviours that cause a problem for their owners (e.g. crib biting).
Boredom-breaking ideas to try for your horse or pony:
- Multiple haynets – spread their hay ration into two or three haynets and tie them safely at different points in the stable, to encourage your horse to move.
- Stable toys – by providing horse-safe stable toys, you’re meeting your horse’s need to have fun!
- Hay treat balls – by splitting their hay ration between haynets and hay treat balls, your horse will benefit from a more interesting feeding routine.
- Hay blocks – hay blocks, also known as ‘fodder bricks’, can keep your horse entertained for longer; though if your horse has EMS or is laminitis prone, check the hay brick is suitable for them.
- Treat balls – allow your horse to exercise natural foraging behaviour by providing them with low-calorie, low-sugar treats in an equine treat ball.
- Salt lick – a salt lick will give your horse access to any minerals they might be missing while they aren’t grazing as much.
- Molasses-free licks – will provide your horse with a tasty treat and extra nutrients; just make sure the licks you choose are suitable for your equine friend!
Although it isn’t always safe to exercise our horses in icy conditions, some horses need exercise to stay happy and healthy.
When riding during the winter, it’s best to avoid riding on roads or uneven bridlepaths if it’s icy or visibility is poor; maybe ride in an arena instead, if there’s one available.
Also, to prevent your equine friend from getting chilly, it’s recommended they wear an exercise sheet while being exercised.
Clipping your horse
Clipping your horse’s woolly winter coat can prevent them from catching a chill while their sweat dries after exercise.
For a great guide to clipping, visit Clipping Questions by Liveryman.
Rugs, rugs, rugs!
Rugging our equine friends can help to keep them warm and dry during cold, wet, winter weather.
However, there’s a lot of debate about when’s best to rug our horses. Luckily, the British Horse Society (BHS) guide to rugging a horse is a fantastic, free feature that provides plenty of information about keeping your horse comfortable this winter!