As the evenings become darker and temperatures drop, it’s worth considering how best to prepare your horse for the winter months.
Stabled horses will often only require minor changes to their management routine during the winter months, however, if your horses are kept outside, they may need extra support throughout the winter season whether they are coming in to be stabled or remaining outdoors for the winter.
Don’t overgroom. Horses and ponies grow an extra layer of hair in the autumn, which is extremely effective at keeping the winter elements out and their body heat in. This winter coat is naturally covered in waterproof oils, which act as a barrier against rain, snow, and harsh winds.
Although horses that are turned out in the winter are more likely to end up covered in mud, it is important to remember that too much grooming is not helpful, as this removes some of these oils, reducing the coat’s waterproofing properties.
Consider a rug. When preparing horses for winter, it is worth considering whether it is necessary to rug your horse, and this will depend on several factors:
Your horse’s breed. Native breeds that are unclipped tend to do fine living out without the added protection of a winter rug, however, a thoroughbred will normally benefit from having an extra layer of protection
If your horse or pony is in work you may decide to clip them and in these cases, a rug is essential to help keep them warm and dry in the winter weather
If your paddock is exposed without shelter, your horse will likely benefit from a rug
If your horse or pony is older, they may need a rug to keep warm. Just like people, as horses age, they will often require more care and attention
If your horse is in poor body condition, they may need a rug. A thinner horse will feel the cold more than a well-conditioned animal
Your horse must have constant access to water at all times during the year – not just during the hotter weather. Having insulated pipes in stable yards will help to prevent them from freezing. It is also important to break and remove any ice that forms over water troughs. These troughs should also be monitored throughout the day to ensure they don’t refreeze.
Hydration isn’t just about water though – electrolytes (salts) have an important role in the efficient uptake of water. These salts are used up by the body to support normal daily activity, but are lost even faster if a horse sweats. That is why it is advisable to include some Equi-Lyte G in your horse’s daily feed, especially after a day’s hunting or following a competition. This highly palatable powdered electrolyte formulation provides balanced essential electrolytes, with the added benefit of antioxidants Vitamin E and C, for optimal hydration and recovery after exercise.
One of the biggest issues faced by owners while preparing horses for winter is maintaining turnout during the colder months. If your horse or pony is kept on grassland during the winter months, additional forage and feeding may be required, as muddy ground will inevitably have very little grass on it, and grass during the colder winter months will have very little nutritive value. If possible, resting an additional area of land during the winter months will mean this is ready for use during the spring. This is especially important if you have broodmares and youngstock who will benefit nutritionally from the nutrient-rich spring grass.
If you are lucky enough to have an all-weather turnout paddock with a wood chip surface or similar, it will allow your horse to continue his turnout regime during the colder months. Just make sure that your horse always has access to plenty of forage and water.
Even with the benefit of turnout access, some horses may become bored in all-weather paddocks, as they will be unable to graze. A bored animal can develop vices quickly, and even if mental stimulation is provided, the habit may persist. If there is any evidence of crib-biting on fences or fixtures, a layer of easy-to-apply Crib-Halt Gel can be painted on as a proven anti-cribbing deterrent. You should also consider adding items to enrich the environment to avoid the boredom setting in.
Read more about vices in horses
All turn-out areas should provide adequate shelter from the elements. If you have a purpose-built shelter, ensure that it is mucked out regularly and has suitable bedding to allow animals to lie down comfortably if they wish.
The risk of mud fever or mud rash increases during the winter months. This is because wetter conditions can compromise the skin barrier, allowing bacteria that can live in the soil for years to penetrate and cause infection. Mud fever is characterised by scabs and matting of the hairs over the legs, especially the lower legs, the fetlocks and pasterns (because they are the areas that are most exposed to wet/mud). The same bacteria (Dermatophilus congolensis) can cause rain scald elsewhere on the body.
Horse’s legs can be protected by using MRS skin protecting ointment. This effective moisture barrier ointment helps prevent bacteria from gaining access to damaged skin, as well as promoting healing. MRS Ointment also contains the natural healing antiseptic, tea tree oil, to aid skin restoration. Simply wash and fully dry legs before applying.
Read more about mud fever.
As with humans, horses’ bodies change with age – so older horses may require some extra support during cold weather. A high-quality diet suitable for older horses is a must and additional calories, as well as other forms of nutritional support, can help older horses maintain condition and health. The inclusion of Kentucky Karron Oil in the daily diet can be beneficial, as it is made of high-quality linseed oil with omega-3 and 6 fatty acids to improve skin and coat health, support the immune system and aid digestion.
Including Chevinal in your older horses winter diet can be beneficial to enhance nutrient intake, in particular adding in some essential amino acids, antioxidants and B vitamins.
Winter is especially difficult for older animals with conditions like arthritis and lung issues.
Protecting senior horses from the elements by tucking them up in a stable can seem the kindest way to see them through the winter, but turnout can also be beneficial for stiff joints or sensitive lungs. It is best to speak to your vet about what is best for your horse, especially if they are suffering from these health conditions, but supplements can help to support your horse.