Winter Ailments and Injuries

With the last of the leaves fallen, the holidays behind us, and the daylight hours shorter than ever, winter is upon us again. All too often owners are tardy in implementing winter precautions for horses and farm, or they might have overlooked those precautions entirely. This can result in headaches for the owner and hardship for the horses. The onset of cold weather often brings with it an entirely different set of challenges, so I wanted to touch on the various causes of cold weather-induced colic and other winter ailments and methods of preventing these problems.

Any veterinarian will attest to dehydration being a hallmark precursor to colic in cold weather. In the coming months, the ambient air temperature will continue to drop, resulting in cold (and sometimes frozen) water troughs and buckets. Sometimes a horse may be unable to drink because extreme temperatures have frozen the water in the trough, but typically the problem is the water in the trough is so painfully cold to drink that horses avoid it. Horses will then continue eating their daily rations of forage and grain, but with lost water intake, dehydration and subsequent impaction are a foreseeable consequence.

Fortunately, administering oral fluids and pain relievers will resolve the majority of these conditions, but they can be prevented.

Water heaters for buckets and troughs are inexpensive, easy to install, and invaluable to maintaining a horse's water consumption through the winter months. Often owners will ask if adding electrolytes will help increase their horses' water intake. Truthfully, as long as the water is a reasonable temperature, a horse will self-regulate his water consumption. Electrolyte supplements won't hurt him, but it is important not to add them to the main water supply. A horse should always have fresh, clean water available, with the addition of electrolytes only to a separate trough or bucket that makes these supplements available, should the horse want them.

Owners also commonly ask veterinarians when it's time to begin blanketing their horses. Since most people have their own ideas as to whether their horse should wear a blanket or not, my answer to this question is usually very vague. The reality, however, is that unless your horse has been body-clipped and has no insulating hair coat, winter blankets typically are not necessary except in cases of extreme cold or prolonged dampness.

The air temperature usually is not cold enough to affect your horse's temperature regulation, but the moisture in the air can cause frost to form on the hair coat that eventually will melt in the sun and soak the horse. A cold horse with a dry coat is not nearly as problematic as a cold horse with a damp coat. Blankets can reduce a horse's risk of weather exposure by preventing dampness and further insulating your horse, but the blankets must be changed and dried regularly. A wet blanket on a cold day can make a horse worse off than having no blanket at all.

Another common winter problem among horses, much like humans, is their stability on slippery surfaces. Injuries associated with slipping on ice or hard-packed snow are commonplace, but they are also preventable. With the volume of snow that the Northern states historically accumulate, snow removal quickly becomes a problem, as does maintaining a suitable walking surface. To help reduce the risk of injury be sure to remove the snow accumulation following each snowfall--especially in high-traffic areas, such as the paths between paddocks and immediately in front of and behind the gate entrances.

It's much easier to accomplish each of these preventive tactics if you consider them well before the onset of the worst weather, and you will incur fewer complications if you do so. Have a safe winter!

About the Author

Scott Leibsle, DVM

Scott Leibsle, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, is the deputy state veterinarian with the Idaho State Department of Agriculture's Division of Animal Industries. When not at work, he can often be found on a golf course, water/snow skiing, or working in his wood shop.

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