Horses are surprisingly well adapted to cope with extremes of temperature, as seen in Arab horses in the dessert. Our Native feral ponies get fat in the summer and use those reserves to maintain themselves over the winter. Wild horses are continually on the move, rarely taking a break from grazing which means they are burning calories in their muscles as they move which helps to keep them warm, also they nearly always have some fibre in their stomachs making them a lot less susceptible to gastric ulcers etc.
Unfortunately, most of us are unable to turn our horses out on Exmoor or the New Forest and most equestrian establishments have relatively high stocking densities. If you are lucky enough to be on chalk or similar, or have a lot of land and can winter your horse out, this is by far the most natural for him and least labour intensive for you. Daily checks are required and the ice on the water trough will need breaking in frozen conditions.
The nature of the horse’s feet mean that poorly drained and heavy ground such as clay soil soon gets poached and, turns to mud and the grass is lost. Winter turnout is inevitably limited in most livery and smaller private yards. It is almost certain that the majority of horses will have to spend more time standing in during the winter.
In order to relieve stress, it is important to try and mimic as many natural behaviours as possible. Mental stimulation too is important when there may be reduced opportunities for exercise. There are many proprietary equine toys on the market for this purpose but a lot can be achieved by slightly altering the management. Remember that horses have evolved as forage feeders, if possible this should be fed ad-lib and differing forms of forage offered. For good doers, it may be preferable to feed last year’s hay, add in some straw or soak it to reduce the nutrient content. For horses that struggle to hold their weight as well through the winter, offer good quality hay or haylage and other sources of forage such as dried grass or alphalpha. It is a good idea to have several different feeding stations around the stable in order to encourage the horse to move about.
Hard feed may not always be required but if you are unsure as to what hard feed your horse may need, feed companies are always on hand to offer assistance. Some horses also suffer from filled legs as a consequence of standing in but this can also be linked with high protein diets. If your horse is not doing as much work during the winter, remember to reduce the hard feed accordingly. Feeding something succulent is advisable along with dry forage- apples and carrots can be included with your dried grass or alphalpha. If you can possibly bear it, scatter carrot or apple around the stable for him to find, again mimicking natural behaviour. Many horses appreciate a large swede or turnip which they will play with and eventually eat. You can also buy some toys which when rolled about release a few pony nuts at a time. These are a fantastic idea and mimic natural grazing but a few horses do get very frustrated with them.
Being herd animals horses require company and ideally they should have some social interaction. If you have a small family set up, it may be possible to let one or two out onto the yard whilst you are mucking out. They can talk to their friends over the stable door and perhaps groom one another. If interaction with another horse is impossible a stable mirror is advisable. It has been shown that even small amounts of turnout can reduce the risk of gastric ulceration, so where possible a small paddock could be sacrificed for winter use – the grass will regrow if left alone in the spring! Turning out in pairs will add to the enrichment due to the opportunity for the all-important social interaction. If it is really mudding, it is far better to let the mud dry on the legs, or use leg wraps and wash off than to hose them. Dermatophilus, the organism that causes mud fever, thrives in the cold and wet. Of course, there are likely to be the odd days where turn out is impossible – grooming your horse or giving him a pamper session will help to alleviate the boredom.
Of course, all the above management tips are applicable to the whole winter but particular problems occur when it is freezing and icy. Adding some sugar to the water and floating and apple in the bucket can help to prevent it from freezing. Frozen pipes can be a problem – Try to pre-empt this by having an alternative source available. Plastic dustbins can be used to store water and water carriers can be filled in advance. Unfortunately many horses are reluctant to drink ice-cold water, so it is useful to take a flask of hot water to add to the bucket and take the chill off. Reduced water intake during cold weather is a common cause of impaction colic. Fresh horses are always more lively and of course concrete yards can become very slippery when frozen. Having a supply of salt is essential but another tip is not to sweep the yard during these conditions. Hay or shavings frozen to the ground makes a good temporary non -slip surface!
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