Friday, December 11, 2009

Winter Horsekeeping

Temperatures fell into the twenties today in NYC, and with the subarctic chill comes thoughts about my pasture bound Quarter Horse retiree, who, thanks to lots of TLC, a hefty daily feed ration, and a well tailored blue blanket, manages to live outside quite happily during the winter. He's got a barn to come into and a stall nicely bedded down with warm shavings when the weather turns brutally cold, but as long as I've had him he's preferred the open range type of lifestyle to being stalled up. (Though I once owned a paint gelding who was a bit more high maintenance, and LOVED to curl up in his blanket and sleep cold winter nights away in his stall, sheltered from the elements.) With him in mind I thought it fitting to outline some winter care tips for your horses, to keep them safe and healthy when the cold snaps hit.
  1. Horses have at least 7 different mechanisms by which their bodies naturally insulate them from cold weather, and are better adapted to dealing with cold than with heat. That being said, dealing with cold requires a hefty energy expenditure, and it is important to provide extra quantities of free choice hay to facilitate these higher caloric needs.
  2. It is particularly important in the winter to ensure that horses have access to enough water, a feat that can seem daunting when buckets and troughs freeze over. Make sure to break the ice that collects on top of water sources, or invest in heated troughs or portable bucket heaters. Water should be kept somewhere between 45 and 65 degrees to facilitate consumption.
  3. Give cold horses lots of time to get muscles and joints warmed up at the beginning of each workout. This is particularly necessary in older horses who may suffer from arthritis or joint stiffness that can be exacerbated by long stretches of cold weather.
  4. Pay particular attention to cooling your horse out after a workout in the cold. A sweating horse can quickly become chilled, and should have ample time to cool out and then dry, preferably via a good towel rubbing or a long walk underneath a cooler.
  5. If using blankets, check them frequently to make sure they are not rubbing or scratching your horse, and ensure that they fit properly. Make sure to remove the blankets and groom your horses on a regular basis, paying special attention to any changes in weight or coat health.
  6. Special importance should be paid to caring for older horses once the cold sets in, as it can be harder for equine seniors to keep weight on or compete with their pasture mates for an adequate supply of hay and water.
  7. Satisfy hungry horse bellies with the occasional warm bran mash, a favored treat for most equines. Jazz up your recipe with carrots, apples or peppermint, and enjoy watching your horse eagerly lick his bucket clean.
  8. Rub petroleum jelly on the frogs of your horse's feet to prevent snow buildup inside his hooves. If doing lots of outdoor winter riding over snowy or icy terrain, consider investing in horseshoe caulks or rubber horse boots to improve traction.

There are undoubtedly lots more ideas out there for cold weather horsekeeping, so feel free to share yours. Here's hoping you get to enjoy watching your fuzzy pasture bundles frolicking in holiday snowfalls!

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