Winter is Coming: Are Your Horses and Farm Ready?

While there’s not much you can do about Mother Nature, there are steps you can take to prevent her from ruining your winter days.

Photo: iStock

Caring for horses when temperatures are below freezing, a foot-and-a-half of snow covers the ground, and another storm is on the way is simply not fun. Facing that scenario with frozen water tanks, a dwindling forage supply, and a horse that’s dropping weight can quickly make you rethink horse ownership altogether! 

While there’s not much you can do about Mother Nature, there are steps you can take to prevent her from ruining your winter days. Whether you’re a horse owner, a property owner, or both, we’ve got valuable tips from three equine professionals with lots of winter-weather experience to help you prepare your animals, facilities, and yourself for the deep freeze ahead. 

Ready Your Steeds

It’s no secret that some horses handle frigid temperatures and polar precipitation better than others, but there are several steps you can take to help the cold-weather wimps endure winter as well as they possibly can.

A wellness exam is a good idea any time of year, but a pre-winter checkup is especially wise if you’re managing geriatric horses or equids with chronic conditions.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Ensure your horse is in good health A wellness exam is a good idea any time of year, but a pre-winter checkup is especially wise if you’re managing geriatric horses or equids with chronic conditions, says Amy R. Leibeck, DVM, of the Genesee Valley Equine Clinic, in Scottsville, New York. Scottsville is located just 15 miles from Rochester—one of the snowiest cities in the United States, averaging nearly 100 inches of the white stuff each year.

“In our neck of the woods, the winter can be very difficult even on the healthiest and most robust of horses,” Leibeck says. “Those horses with arthritis, weakened immune systems due to equine Cushing’s disease, dental issues, or other problems that limit mobility or ability to use all of the fuel fed to them would certainly benefit from an examination.” Then the examining veterinarian can recommend ways to help the horses best handle the winter months.

Monitor winter coat growth Horses begin growing their winter coats as early as September, when the days start getting shorter and the nights longer. Keep an eye on the coat your horse develops. If it’s thick and insulating, he might have no trouble weathering winter without a blanket. But if he doesn’t grow a significant coat and you reside in a cold or snowy climate, he might benefit from the extra layer.  

Check your horse’s vaccination status By the time winter arrives in northern climates, most mosquitoes—and the diseases they carry, such as Eastern equine encephalomyelitis (EEE), Western equine encephalomyelitis (WEE), and West Nile virus (WNV)—are long gone. But there might still be some vaccines your horse needs.

“If someone wants to have vaccines divided up over the year, then it would be fine to give rabies and tetanus in the winter, since the risk of a rabies or tetanus exposure is a year-round problem,” Leibeck says. “For horses who are on the move at shows on weekends or being taken on and off the farm where they’re exposed to other horses, a rhino/flu booster is suggested every six months, so that might be given at this time, as well.”

Horses residing or wintering in southern regions, however, might benefit from additional fall vaccines. Many veterinarians recommend that horses living in areas where mosquitoes are present year-round or for longer periods get EEE, WEE, and WNV boosters every six months, rather than once a year.

Additionally, discuss with your veterinarian whether your horse would benefit from a botulism vaccine before winter, especially if he’s going to be consuming hay from large round bales.

Determine parasite load and act accordingly Leibeck strongly encourages horse owners to have fecal egg counts performed and to deworm appropriately based on the results during the fall, administering anthelmintic as directed by your veterinarian.

Monitor body condition score Weathering winter with an underweight horse can be a struggle. So before the temperatures drop, take a good look at your horse’s body condition score (BCS) to be sure he’s in good shape.  

Ideally, your horse should score a 5 or 6 (on the 9-point scale) going into winter, with the goal of maintaining that score throughout, says Kristen Janicki, MS, PAS, a Nicholasville, Kentucky-based performance horse nutritionist for Buckeye Nutrition.  

“Where you are located, what your horse’s pasture living situation is, and what the pasture looks like will dictate when you should start thinking about body condition score,” Janicki says. “If you are in a situation where your horses never see much grass and you are providing most of their fiber from hay, or if your winters are typically warm, there may not be any change going into winter. But if you rely heavily on pasture as a forage source and live in an area where grasses go dormant during the winter, you’ll want to monitor BCS once temperatures are consistently below 65°F,” at which point cool-season grasses enter a dormant stage. To make up for the calories lost in the dormant pasture, provide your horse with extra good-quality hay, she adds. 

Continue to monitor your horse’s BCS throughout the winter, as it will tell you exactly how well your feeding program is working. “If your horse starts to drop condition, you will need to provide more calories,” says Janicki.

She also notes that horses don’t actually begin to burn more calories to keep warm until it is quite frigid (-10 to -15°F). “So, if your horse is losing weight and it’s above 0°F, more than likely it’s due to nutrition alone,” she says. “Have your hay tested for nutrient content, reevaluate your feeding program, and adjust as needed.”

Consider a dental exam If your horse has had regular veterinary dental exams and maintenance, then he probably won’t need a separate dental exam leading up to winter unless you notice a problem, such as dropping feed or quidding hay.

However, Janicki says, “older horses might need a checkup prior to winter to make sure their teeth are in good shape, especially if they are going from pasture to hay,” which can be more difficult for horses with poor dentition to chew.

Secure forage early  “If you have room to store bulk quantities of hay, don’t wait until the last minute to purchase your winter hay stores,” says Alayne Blickle, the Nampa, Idaho-based founder of Horses for Clean Water and blogger on TheHorse.com. “Otherwise, ensure you have a reliable supplier who will have hay available all winter long.”

Horses on a maintenance diet should consume at least 2% of their body weight in hay per day. For the average 1,000-pound horse that gets moderate amounts of exercise, that equates to about 20 pounds of hay per day and about 600 pounds per month. Do the math to determine about how much hay you’ll need to get through the winter. Also factor in a cushion for those frigid days when your horses might need a little extra roughage.

“Once temperatures reach 20°F, horses’ nutritional needs start to change,” says Leibeck. She recommends that her clients feed an extra flake per horse per day when lows hit 20°F, and an additional flake for each 10 degrees temperatures continue to drop. So, an average 1,000-pound horse might need an extra three flakes in zero-degree temperatures.

“You may want to consider having the hay analyzed so that logical, economical decisions about grain for the winter can be made,” Leibeck suggests.

And don’t forget—hay isn’t the only forage source you can offer to your horse to ensure he consumes enough fiber. 

“All horses, especially older horses with poor or missing teeth, need to … get adequate fiber in winter,” Janicki says. “The digestion of fiber actually helps to keep horses warm in winter. If your horse cannot eat long-stemmed forage or turns his nose up at your hay, you need to find something that he will eat. Consider fiber cubes, pellets, or beet pulp.”  

Consider installing heated automatic waterers to keep horses drinking and cut down on winter watering chores.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Keep your horse drinking Of course, your horse will need constant access to fresh, unfrozen water all winter. We’ll describe ways to keep your water sources thawed in a moment, but sometimes it’s not the water source that’s the trouble—some horses are just picky drinkers. Horses that don’t drink enough water during the winter run the risk of developing impaction colic and becoming dehydrated.

“Horses actually prefer to drink water that is around 65°F in cold weather,” Janicki says. And if warm, unfrozen water alone doesn’t do the trick, “you can also add a flavoring or electrolytes to the water to encourage the horse to drink.”

Don’t neglect hoof care Leibeck stresses that winter, and the time leading up to it, is not the time to skip trims or wait longer between shoeings.

“Shod horses who are turned out during the winter months may need modifications so that the snow does not ball up on the sole,” she explains. “Snow ball pads are available in a few styles.” 

She encourages owners to talk with their farrier about what horses will be doing and where they will be living for the winter to determine what trimming or shoeing regimen will work best for each. “There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ option on this,” she says.

Don’t Forget Your Facilities 

Having well-prepared horses does little good if your property isn’t also equipped to withstand winter. Here are some tips for preparing your barns and facilities.

Ensure your structures are fit for winter Barn and building collapses happen every year when structures can’t hold up under the weight of snow and ice. Don’t risk losing horses, equipment, and even people.

Check the structural integrity of your horse barns to make sure they can sustain the weight of the snow and ice.

Photo: Photos.com

“A local building contractor familiar with snow loads should be able to make an assessment on the structural integrity of your barn and outbuildings,” Blickle says, adding that contractors can also check electrical wiring to be sure it’s up to code, which becomes especially important if you’re using heated water buckets or heat lamps.  

Finally, if your area experiences frequent power outages, you might consider buying a generator, particularly if your horses depend on well water, Blickle says.  

Line up snow removal equipment Don’t wait until two feet of snow falls to find or buy a shovel or call around for plowing quotes. Be ready ahead of time. 

“For snow removal on a long driveway, a tractor with a blade is great for clearing,” Blickle says. “A snow blower might work well for shorter driveways and locations that receive snow less frequently.” 

Or, if you don’t have your own equipment, make arrangements ahead of time with a helpful neighbor or handyman to clear snow, she says.

Review water sources Ensure your horses’ water will remain unfrozen throughout the winter. Blickle suggests:

  • Insulating pipes and faucets with heat tape or other materials to avoid frozen water lines;
  • Draining hoses after each use to prevent ice buildup;
  • Consider getting a stock tank heater and/or heated stall buckets if you have electricity (but remember: Make sure you don’t melt a plastic tank with an electric heater or that a curious horse doesn’t go bobbing for tank heaters!);
  • If you don’t have a reliable electricity source in your barn or pasture, install an insulated bucket; and/or
  • Consider installing heated automatic waterers; some companies offer options with water gauges so you can monitor how much your horse is drinking.

Prepare sacrifice areas If you don’t have a sacrifice area, Blickle recommends establishing one before winter arrives. These small enclosures—essentially sacrificed land a horse can live in during wet or snowy periods—can help prevent damage and plant stress in larger pastures and paddocks during winter. Learn how to create one at TheHorse.com/36322.

Check your drainage Depending on where you live, winter drainage issues can result in anything from a knee-deep mud puddle to an impassible ice-skating rink. 

“Next time there’s a heavy rain, go out to your barn and horse confinement areas and see where surface water is running from and going to,” Blickle says. “If it’s collecting in your confinement and high-traffic areas, then fall might be a good time to make drainage revisions. The critical thing to consider with drainage is to stop or divert water that’s running toward your barn and high-traffic areas.”

Some options for diverting surface water include:

  • A water bar (essentially a speed bump for water that diverts it away from high-traffic areas);
  • A dry well (a deep hole in the ground filled with large round rocks that collects water during heavy rains);
  • A grassy swale (a vegetated area with a gentle slope that channels water away from high-traffic areas); and 
  • A French drain (a trench filled with round drain rock and a perforated pipe that redirects water away from an area).

Find more tips on managing surface flows at TheHorse.com/36334.

Manage horses’ waste The flies might be fewer and the odor less pungent, but Mount Manure won’t get any easier to deal with when it’s frozen solid!

“If you don’t already pick up manure on a regular basis (preferably daily, but at least every three days from pastures), fall is the time to start doing so,” Blickle says. “A horse creates 50 pounds of manure per day. When mixed with precipitation over the winter months, this can quickly turn into 50 pounds of mud per day. Picking up manure on a regular basis will greatly decrease the amount of mud on your farm over the winter months.”

Also, ensure you’ve got a good composting program (or learn to install a composter at TheHorse.com/35678). Blickle says fall is a great time to spread existing compost. “It adds micro- and macronutrients and replenishes beneficial bacteria that improve the health of soil and plants,” she says. “Spread compost thinly in pastures in early fall no more than ½-inch thick and no more than three to four inches per season in the same place.”

Check gutters and downspouts Don’t wait for an ice dam to develop—inspect your gutters and downspouts, give them a good cleaning, and make any needed repairs or additions. 

Ensure you’ve got adequate light All riders know winter means less daylight for riding. But this can also make chores—and late-night emergency veterinarian visits—hairy if you rely on the sun when caring for your horses. 

“One of my favorite—and simplest—things to do on a horse property is to install adequate outdoor lighting,” Blickle says. “Get an electrician in now to get that work done instead of waiting until temperatures are freezing and you’re trying to feed by flashlight. Motion lights are also useful along human pathways and as a deterrent for unwanted wildlife.”

Take-Home Message

Preparing for winter—especially when you live in northern regions—can be a daunting task, but it’s certainly less of a project than waiting to fix problems that arise when a winter storm hits. Getting horses and facilities ready in advance can help ensure you weather the transitions from fall to winter to spring without a hitch in your horse care routine.

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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