Ward Off Winter

If you live where you have changing seasons, winter is a challenge. While you might be partial to winter weather and the recreational pleasures it provides, you probably also appreciate the many problems it creates for you at the barn.

Preparing for the coming blast of winter in advance might help you avoid extra work and frustration. In fact, although it might seem unwarranted at the moment, autumn is the ideal time to brace yourself--and your horse--for the wintry months ahead.

Depending on where you live, a conflict with Old Man Winter will occur in the form of snow, rain, wind, and ice, or any combination of those elements. While there are things you can do to prepare your horse physically for winter, your principle chore will be to prepare his living quarters.

Taming the Wind

Gusty winter winds intensify the many possible hazards to which a pasture-kept horse is exposed. When allowed to grow a thick winter coat, a horse usually has an effective defense against bitter temperatures. However, should a strong wind accompany the sub-zero degree weather, that protection will be compromised. Add rain or snow, and your horse's proficient heating and insulation system will be drastically reduced.

Horses kept on pasture benefit from some form of extra protection. This can be a simple run-in shed, or even a well-planned windbreak of a dense stand of evergreen trees. If you're going to rely on a run-in shed to protect your horses, be sure that it's large enough to safely accommodate all of the horses in the pasture. Also make sure that the shed en-trance has ample room for several horses to pass through freely. Horses on the bottom of the pecking order will need to have plenty of room to escape bullies.

Despite the fact that a strong fortress of trees is certainly capable of providing your horse with some protection from the elements (although not from 33�F and rain--likely the most stressful weather for horses), it might also prove deadly. Sizable branches often break off in powerful gusts of wind, and aged or weakened trees can blow over or be brought down by ice. Damage and loss due to toppled trees can be particularly heart-wrenching should they involve the life and well-being of your horse.

Although it's impossible to wholly prevent such occurrences, providing your horse with a healthy stand of trees can narrow the odds. Keep pasture trees pruned of all deadwood, and remove entire trees that have died. Moreover, if a badly diseased tree has lost its resiliency to bend with the wind, cut it down before it falls on its own.

Wind-blown trees aren't the only threat to your pasture-kept horse. In fact, anything in or near your pasture that is lightweight enough to be borne on the wind should be considered a potential hazard. Be sure to secure all objects such as hay tarps and feed buckets. While they might not directly injure your horse, any such article tumbling through a pasture in a gusty wind might frighten any horse enough to make it run through a fence.

Water Woes

Water, in either liquid or frozen form, is a big concern in many parts of the country. No matter the source, be it from too much rain or melting snow, the end result is the same: Wading pools and mud bogs everywhere (particularly at the pasture gate, along well-used paths between the house and barn, around pasture water tanks, and possibly even inside your horse's run-in shed).

If you have an extensive problem with large areas of pooling water, speak to a contractor. He'll assist you with a plan to not only build up the low problem spots, but to divert the run-off in a controlled direction.

If you have the skills, equipment, and knowledge, you might take on the challenge yourself. However, be aware that just dumping a load of fill dirt in front of the gate will not likely solve your dilemma, at least not for any great length of time.

No matter how well you've planned ahead, there will assuredly be a few puddles to deal with. If your nighttime lows regularly dip below freezing, those puddles will soon be converted into skating rinks. Identify puddles that will be skating rinks come winter, and either get a contractor to help you divert the water, or keep a supply of clay-based cat litter, course salt, or ashes from your fireplace to scatter over the ice. If you have stalled horses, the soiled bedding from your horses' stalls will also work quite nicely. Keep in mind that the salt--and to a lesser degree the ash--can damage the soil. If you choose to use either of these two methods, use them sparingly.

Also, you may want to assess your farm's response to a loss of electricity. Many rural farms use wells that are driven by electrical pumps, so when there is no power there is no water, which can definitely create problems. Having a gasoline-powered electrical generator on hand could help solve water problems if the power goes off for several days.

Irksome Ice

Like puddles, pasture water tanks, as well as stall water buckets, will ice over in sub-freezing weather. Again, where you live will determine whether you'll need to invest in a water heater of some sort.

There are four styles of pasture stock tank heaters available on the market--float, submersible, side mount, or a drain plug de-icer. Look for them at your local feed and tack or hardware stores. In addition, you'll find tons of tank heaters online. All work equally well, but due to their differences, you might opt for one over others depending on the situation.

For safety's sake, the float style heater doesn't quite measure up to the other three when used in plastic stock tanks. Should the elements of a float heater accidentally touch the wall of a plastic tank above the water level, the element is hot enough to not only melt your tank, but to set it on fire. Nevertheless, special guards can be purchased for use on float-style heaters, making them much safer to use.

No matter which type of stock tank heater you choose to use, keep a watchful eye on your horse's water consumption. If your horse doesn't appear to be drinking, it might be due to a short in the heater causing an electric shock each time your horse goes to take a drink.

To avoid this problem, a tank heater can be plugged into a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI). However, unlike a circuit breaker or fuse, a GFCI is activated by very small measures of electricity. For this reason, you'll still have to check your water tank daily to be sure that the GFCI hasn't tripped, allowing the tank to freeze.

There are also several freeze-proof water buckets available for the stalled horse. Heating elements are actually built directly into the walls of the buckets and are thermostat-controlled to keep the water between 40 and 60�F.

Another option is to use a drop-in bucket heater. While these must not be used as a standard water heater to keep a horse's water from freezing (your horse could burn itself on the heater or remove it from the bucket and start a fire), they're great if you simply need to warm up a bucket of water for a brief period of time.

Barn Basics

While we're still on the subject of water and its knack for freezing, any above-ground water pipes should be insulated with wrap-around insulation or heat tape. If your water line freezes, you'll have to transport water to your horse from another source, at least until the days begin to warm up again. Then you just might find your barn sprouting geysers everywhere from the thawed (and cracked) frozen water line.

Also check barn gutters and drains. Make sure that they're free of debris and function properly throughout the winter months so they efficiently allow water to run off when the snow and ice melt.

Test barn lights and plugs to be sure they're all in working order. Mice are notorious for gnawing on exposed electrical wires, so where it's feasible, inspect for frayed wires. Also, dust the cobwebs away from stall light bulbs. With the coming shorter winter days, you'll probably be making more use of the lights for longer periods of time. This might seem an unnecessary and tedious chore, but it's always better to avert a potential fire when possible.

Barn doors and stall gates tend to become stiff and sluggish in cold weather. A squirt of lubricating oil on all door hinges will keep them moving freely, even on the coldest winter day. A silicone spray can be used on sliding stall door systems.

Storage Savvy

Dig out your carefully stored blankets, sheets, and turnout rugs and service them as needed before winter hits. With proper planning, you took care of washing and mending them before you stored them away for the summer, but if not, it's time to quit procrastinating. Due to shrinkage from washing, or growth of the horse, you might want to make sure the blanket still fits the horse.

Next go through your equine medicine chest to make sure it is complete and that no drugs have passed their expiration dates. If so, discard them and replace them with new ones. Medications should be stored according to the directions on the product label, or based on the advice of the veterinarian. Creamlike medications and ointments typically can be stored in a heated tack room or inside your house where they will maintain a pliable consistency.

Just because it's winter doesn't mean that fence boards won't get broken; you certainly know horses better than that! Be sure you have a sufficient supply of boards, posts, nails, bolts, and screws. Otherwise you might have to make an emergency run into town on a slippery wintry road in the middle of a snowstorm to purchase a new gate latch or eyebolt.

If you have the room, it's much more economical to stock up on hay, bedding, and feed rather than purchase it regularly throughout the winter. In an effort to prevent mold spores from growing, feed and hay must be stored where they will stay cool and dry. Bagged feed can be stacked on pallets in your feed room. However, barn vermin are capable of gnawing right through the bags, so a better option would be to transfer the feed into rodent-proof containers.

While hay should be stored under cover, it's best to stack it in a separate barn or shed from where horses are housed. There are two reasons: First, hay is a highly combustible resource and brings with it the inherent risk of fire. Second, major equine respiratory problems have been traced to hay, chaff, dust, and mold spores. For the same two reasons, stall bedding, be it wood shavings or straw, should also be stockpiled under a shelter away from where your horse is stalled.

Storing your hay and stall bedding in a separate building doesn't mean that it has to be terribly inconvenient. A fifty-foot difference isn't an enormous jaunt, yet it could easily make a difference in the health and lives of your horses.

It's not necessary to stack hay in a single location. In fact, a better approach would be to store it in individual covered hay sheds, situated in close proximity to each of your pastures. This would not only make your feeding chores a whole lot easier, but should one stack of hay spontaneously combust, you wouldn't lose your entire hay supply.

Take-Home Message

While many people don't mind a little snow, and actually enjoy winter riding, there are specific tasks that become more difficult due to adverse weather.

Winter horse care will prove to be much less of a challenge if you prepare for Old Man Winter's annual visit well in advance.

Pre-Winter Checklist

  • Prune and remove dead branches and trees from windbreaks.
  • Batten down anything capable of being carried in the wind.
  • Check your equine medicine chest and re-supply commonly used items. Be sure drug expiration dates are current. Store appropriately.
  • Lubricate all barn and stall doors and pasture gates.
  • Insulate above-ground water pipes and make sure barn drains and gutters are free of debris.
  • Test barn lights, inspect wiring, and sweep cobwebs from around stall light fixtures.
  • Assess farm response to a loss of electricity (having a gasoline-powered electrical generator on hand may save the day).
  • Dig out and assess stored winter blankets, sheets, and hoods. Repair as needed.
  • Stock up on farm supplies, i.e., replacement fence boards, nails, bolts, heated water buckets, stock tank heaters, etc.
  • Purchase an adequate supply of hay and feed. Stack hay and bedding appropriately where they will remain dry. Feed should be stored in rodent-proof containers.--Kim and Kari Baker

About the Author

Kim and Kari Baker

Kim and Kari Baker are equine photographers as well as writers. The twins live on a ranch in northwest Montana and have been in the equine industry for more than 35 years, raising, showing, and training Appaloosas.

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