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Winter horse care

Winter has arrived. Falcon has already had a few dustings of snow and the usual cold winds. While we huddle in our warm houses, our horses are probably either standing out in their pasture or hanging out in an unheated barn. But there’s no need to worry (too much) as long as the proper precautions are taken to protect the horses from winter hardships.Colic is a major killer of horses, and, with cold weather comes an increased colic risk. Colic is a nonspecific term that means a horse has belly pain. It can be anything from gas to an intestinal impaction to an actual twist in the intestines. Colic is more common when the temperature changes, especially when the weather goes from warm to cold. Winter introduces several risk factors that make your horse more vulnerable to digestive problems.Water intake is crucial.When the weather starts to turn cold, horses need more water to digest hay and grass and to keep things moving in their intestinal tracts. This is a time when the horse owner needs to pay special attention to their horse’s food and water intake. Dr. Clint Unruh of Colorado Equine Veterinary Services said, “Colic is always a bigger concern in the winter. With the change in temperature from warm to cold and back to warm, horses don’t drink water like they should, and it gets them in trouble.” Owners need to be sure to provide plenty of fresh water and prevent it from freezing. Water can be kept warm the low-tech way – by filling buckets in the house and hauling them out to the water tank or bucket – or by buying a heated water tank, heated buckets or a heating element that is placed in the tank.Leslie Laing tends to a herd of 18 horses at her boarding facility, Falcon Creek Farm. She pays close attention to the condition of her tank heaters. “All my wires have PVC pipe around them so the horses can’t get to them. You don’t want the water level to drop below the heating element,” Laing said. The water should be checked frequently, she said. “You have to clean the tanks more often in the winter,” said Laing. “The water is warm and algae will grow. I clean the tanks about once a month with bleach and a scrub brush.”The threat of electrocution from faulty wiring is real, so be sure to inspect your heating elements regularly. “Consider grounding your water heater,” advises Hilary Wood, founder of Front Range Equine Rescue. “This is especially important if you are using a rubber tank.”Giving your horse access to free choice salt in the form of a salt block is important all year round. Your horse needs about one ounce of salt each day. But adding a little extra salt in the winter months to your horse’s diet can encourage him to drink the needed water. Try adding a tablespoon of salt to your horse’s grain at feeding time, especially if your horse doesn’t seem to like salt blocks.Increase hayYour horse’s diet should also be modified as the weather grows colder. Horses need extra calories to generate heat to keep them warm. A problem Unruh sees in the winter is weight loss. “Because of the heavy winter coat, owners don’t recognize the weight loss until spring when the horse sheds his coat,” he said. “It takes a lot more food during the winter to keep a horse going.” These extra calories should come from high-quality hay, not from more grain. Horses need the roughage supplied by hay to keep their intestinal tract healthy.Unruh also notes that because pastures are dryer in the winter, impaction colic is more common. “The fibers of the grass are a lot less digestible once it drys out,” Unruh said. The horse’s digestive system must work overtime to get the bigger pieces processed through the GI tract. Once again, increased water and roughage is important to keep things moving!Many horse owners feed a bran mash in the cold months to add to their horse’s roughage. Unruh thinks this is a good idea when the weather changes from warm to cold and then back to warm again. Wheat bran can be purchased at feed stores, mix it with warm water. (For horse owners who like to spoil their horses, add bits of apple and carrots and a touch of molasses!) Bran mash can be fed once a week during the winter; just cut back on their grain and be sure they’re eating their hay.Keep up with dewormingBe sure to keep up with your horse’s deworming program during the winter. Anything that can weaken a horse can cause problems, and worm infestation is a major cause of colic. Bots — the larvae of flies — are a common problem during the fall. Flies lay their eggs on the front legs of the horse, and the horse ingests them by licking or rubbing his legs. Now that fly season is over, worming with a product containing ivermectin is a good idea.Another parasite that causes concern at this time of the year is a tapeworm. “In Colorado, typically 30 percent of all horses are infected, and there’s no good diagnostic test for it, Unruh said. “We use EquimaxÆ to take care of both bots and tapeworms; it contains both ivermectin and praziquantel.” Chemicals that kill both of these parasites and others can infect your horse.Provide appropriate shelter“Horses can handle cold a lot better than we think,” Laing said. “But the wind and the wet can get to them.” If your horses are outside 24/7, it’s a good idea to provide them with some sort of shelter such as a lean-to or shed. In general, most horses are actually better off being outside, even in very cold weather. Their thick winter coats are effective protection from the elements in most situations. Exceptions to this rule are older horses, horses with thin coats such as Thoroughbreds or Arabians, and performance horses that are clipped or blanketed for showing purposes.If you have several horses and only one shelter, be sure no one is being left out in the cold. Wood, who rescues abused and neglected horses that are typically older, notes, “Since horses are herd animals, the more dominant will get the shelter if only one is provided.” If that happens in your herd, you might need to provide another shelter or give the less dominant members their own pasture.Many horse owners like to blanket their horses when it starts getting cold, but if you start blanketing early in the season, you have to continue throughout the winter. Blanketing early discourages growth of the horse’s winter coat, so your horse will be dependent on the extra protection of the blanket. “The way a horse insulates itself is by trapping air between the hairs of its coat,” Laing said. “When you put a blanket on, you flatten the coat, and you can actually make them colder by blanketing them.” Therefore, it’s best to avoid blanketing except in very cold (under 10 degrees or so) and/or wet weather.Shoes or no shoes?Many horse owners who normally keep shoes on their horses during the warmer months will have the farrier pull them during the winter. The horse’s feet will have a chance to expand and toughen over the winter, and this saves the owner some money, too! However, if the horse will be ridden regularly throughout the winter (especially if he will be ridden on rough or rocky terrain), he’ll need shoes to protect his feet. And some horses can’t go without shoes for therapeutic reasons.When a horse wears shoes in the snow, problems can arise: the snow forms balls on the feet that can bruise the sole and force the horse to walk on his toes. Snow pads that go between the shoe and the hoof prevent this accumulation of snow and ice that can lead to lameness. Unruh explains that there are two different types of pads: a full pad covers the entire sole and has a bubble in the middle; a rim pad fits only under the shoe and has tubing around the edge of the shoe. “The idea is that they have some compression and elasticity to them, so when the horse steps down into the snow, it crushes either the little bubble or the tubing, and then when the horse picks his foot up, the bubble or tubing expands and pushes the snow out,” he said. Ask your farrier what he or she would recommend for your horse.Owning a horse is always a high-maintenance activity, but special care is important during the cold winter months. A little extra attention will help keep your horse healthy and ready for the next riding season.

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