Michael Hipp – Farm Planner, Sound Horsekeeping
Keeping a horse in the winter can be challenging. Even though our main issues in the winter here in western Washington are wind and rain, we can encounter the occasional problems with freezing temperatures and snow. Maintaining good horse care is a challenge here because we need to be prepared for just about anything. But by following some key Best Management Practices (BMPs) you can meet those challenges and not let them overcome your enjoyment of having a horse.
One of the biggest challenges we all face in winter is keeping our horses warm. The rain causes the ambient temperature to feel even colder to horses, as well as humans.
Cold temperatures increase a horse’s energy requirements to maintain a healthy core temperature. The temperature below which a horse requires that additional energy is called the lower critical temperature (LCT). The LCT for a horse is estimated to be 41⁰ F with a summer coat and 18⁰ F with a good winter coat (1). Keep in mind that this is a general estimate, as variances can occur depending on size, fat layer, and breed of horse. Some northern breeds can tolerate colder temperatures with their ability to put on a better winter coat than more southern or warm-area developed horses. I had a Haflinger (a breed from Austria) in the Texas panhandle that in the dead of winter at 10⁰ F would run and play in the snow without a blanket like it was summer! But in general, when the temperatures drop below the LCT for your horse, it will be time to blanket, increase feed, or provide supplemental heat to keep them healthy.
One of the biggest areas where a horse can lose heat is through their hooves. Even a blanketed horse can lose a significant amount of heat through their hooves. Standing in mud is one of the worst things a horse, that is trying to maintain body heat, can do, so providing your horse with a well packed, well drained heavy use area (HUA) can prevent this. Even if you have an HUA in place, remember that accumulated snow does not drain like rainwater, so standing in snow can have the same effect as standing in mud. If snow accumulates in your HUA too deeply, consider shoveling it out to provide a dry place for your equine friend.
Hoof care changes as the seasons and the activity requirements for your horse change.
If you’re not keeping the same training and exercise schedule over the winter and your horse is spending more time in the stall or confined in your HUA, then their hooves will grow a little slower. The predominant theory as to why has to do with circulation. It is said that as the horse’s need to keep warmth at their core increases with lowering temperature, more of the blood is kept at their core and away from extremities like their legs. This reduces the amount of nutrients going to the hooves and thus retards their growth slightly (2). When this happens your farrier schedule may need to be adjusted to allow for longer periods between visits.
Something else to consider is that if you typically shoe your horse in the summer but then remove the shoes in the winter, whenever the ground freezes it will be like being on concrete to the hoof. This is when bruising and other damage can occur. When those freezing times occur, consider keeping your horse in its stall until the ground warms up, or work with your farrier on winter shoeing (which is a little different than summer).
It is also vitally important to monitor hooves for common winter problems such as abscesses and thrush. Both of these can be prevented by keeping your horse off wet winter pastures and maintaining a good HUA to provide them with dry, mud-free footing. Keep that area dry with clean gutters and downspouts, and make sure the downspouts funnel the water away from the HUA through an underground outlet or some other means. It is also important that if for some reason your horse has been on pasture or in mud that once they return to their stall for the evening you pick their hooves thoroughly. Also be sure to maintain a consistent schedule of picking up the manure in their HUA at least every three days, preferably every day, because rain breaks down manure quickly into mud and can become a hazard and health challenge with parasites and other hoof health concerns.
Boredom and Depression
As the temperature gets colder, the days get shorter, the rains increase and confinement from pasture begins, so can the instances of boredom and depression in your horse, especially in older horses. Boredom and depression can create behavioral issues that sometimes are impossible to overcome. The best thing to do then is prevent the cause up front.
A few ways to combat boredom and depression are by keeping their stalls clean, water fresh, and feed consistent. Never feed directly on the floor of a stall as this increases the possibility of parasite infection and wastes feed. It is recommended to always feed from a feed tub on the floor, which allows their neck to assume the same posture as grazing and helps with sinus drainage and circulation, reduces wasted feed, prevents possible parasite infection, and will reduce the amount of foreign material going into your manure bin when the stall is cleaned. The more bedding and foreign material you put in your manure bin the slower the composting process becomes, so keeping the manure as clean as possible is a good practice. And proper composting reduces the volume of a manure pile by 50%, giving you increased capacity for long winters.
Another method for combating boredom is to provide them with stall toys. There are many options available today and keeping a wide variety on hand is a good idea. Change them up every other day to keep their mind stimulated.
The best thing you can do to combat boredom and depression, if you have the resources, is to board them over the winter at a facility with an indoor or covered arena that can maintain a regular exercise schedule and daily contact with your horse. An increasing number of boarding facilities are being given our Sound Horsekeeping award for their practices. For a list of possible winter homes for your horse contact me any time.
Don’t Let It Get to You!
Winter horsekeeping in Western Washington is more challenging than anywhere else in the world (except maybe Siberia!), but by being diligent and following our recommended BMPs for horsekeeping you can beat past winter’s challenges and make this winter a positive experience for both you and your horse.
1. Martinson, Dr. Krishona, “Winter Feeding and Hoof Care”, University of Minnesota, Stable Management, 1/28/2016
2. McGraw, Eliza, “Caring for your Horse’s Hooves in Winter”, Equus, 12/12/2011.