When winter winds howl and snow arrives, the last thing you want to think about is leaving your fireplace to trudge through knee-deep drifts to pound ice out of frozen water buckets. What’s more, if you’re dealing with frozen ground and don’t know how to keep your older horse eating and drinking enough to stay healthy all winter, you’ve got to be thinking that there must be an easier way.
We can relate. Our editors have maintained horses in such rugged-winter states as Colorado, Idaho, North Dakota, and Ohio and, along with season-savvy readers, have learned a thing or two about ways to master the challenge. Here, for your benefit, are 15 solutions to winter problems.
Problem 1: Frozen water troughs/ buckets.
Rookie mistake: Pounding away at the ice with a hammer.
Savvy solution: Water-trough heaters, as well as heated water buckets, are crucial for cutting down on winter barn work and keeping your horses drinking all day long. They also help keep your horses healthy, because dehydration can lead to colic. Insulate an in-pasture trough by stacking bales of straw around it, and cover three-quarters of the tub with a piece of plywood cut to size (ensure that all rough edges and corners are smooth to avoid cuts and punctures). The plywood cover will reduce the water-freezing wind that reaches the tub. Safety bonus: “I prefer to use heaters in the tubs that are in my horses’ pastures. Keeping water readily available deters my horses from pawing the ice on the pond. We had a horse crash through the ice a few years ago and had to haul her out with the truck. It was one of the most horrible things I’ve ever experienced,” says H&R reader Jennifer Biddle of Kentucky.
Problem 2: Extension cords around stalls for water heaters.
Rookie mistake: Putting extension cords within a horse’s reach, where he could bite it and shock or even electrocute himself.
Savvy solution: Run extension cords through heavy-duty plastic pipe anywhere that horses could get to a cord. The pipe won’t conduct electricity if there’s a short circuit, and horses won’t chew through the pipe.
Problem 3: Frozen pipes or a power outage that stops your well pump from working.
Rookie mistake: Not having any water saved up for the emergency.
Savvy solution: Make it a habit to fill any extra gallon-jugs with water, and keep them in a spare room, a non-freezing garage area, or in your basement. The jugs will leave you with enough water for emergencies so your horses don’t go thirsty while your water-source problem is being fixed.
Problem 4: Moving manure, water, or hay over ice or in deep snow.
Rookie mistake: Throwing out your back when struggling with a wheelbarrow to move barn supplies or manure through the snow.
Savvy solution: Bring out your inner child by breaking out your plastic sled, designed to move much more effortlessly over the snow and ice than a wheelbarrow or truck. Throw on bales of hay, tubs of manure, or even the aforementioned water jugs, and slide to and around the barn with ease.
Problem 5: Snowed-in horse trailer.
Rookie mistake: Parking the trailer in an open or low-lying area that’s prone to drifts.
Savvy solution: Because your horse trailer can be your life-line to getting to a vet in an emergency, it’s smart to park it away from areas where snow is likely to pile up. When plowing, be sure to unbury your trailer first. Super-savvy: Wrap the hitch of your trailer with bubble wrap and duct tape, so it doesn’t get covered with ice and snow. Keep extra bags of shavings in the clean horse compartment in case they need to be spread quickly for a trip to the vet.
Problem 6: Dangerous ice build-up around the barn.
Rookie mistake: Using roadway ice-melt, which can burn horses’ skin if they come in contact with it.
Savvy solution: Substitute water-softener salt pellets to melt through icy spots. It comes in 50-pound bags, and you can get it from retail outlets and big-box farm or ranch stores, too. It doesn’t burn the skin like the ice-melt that’s made to go on asphalt streets or sidewalks.
Problem 7: Sweaty horse after a winter ride.
Rookie mistake: Thinking that one cooler will be good enough.
Savvy solution: A cool-down should be a multi-step process in the cold. First, towel-dry the horse to remove any excess sweat, and then put on the first cooler. After the horse has sweat through that cooler, put on a new dry one. Repeat with fresh coolers until the horse is truly dry. Putting a winter blanket on a wet horse is a good way to give your horse a chill, defeating the purpose of putting on a blanket in the first place.
Problem 8: Ice-cold bits.
Rookie mistake: Bitting your horse with a frozen mouthpiece that’ll stick to the soft tissues inside his mouth.
Savvy solution: If you don’t have a hot-water spigot at the barn (and most of us don’t), keep an electrical teapot or other water-heating appliance in a safe spot in your tack room. Warm?don’t boil?a cup full of water to heat your bit before you ride. If you don’t have electricity in your barn, carry hot water from the house in a thermos. Bit tip: Use a tall, skinny cup for a snaffle bit to keep the rest of the headstall from falling in and getting wet. For a straight-mouthed bit, put the warm water in Tupperware.
Problem 9: Horses dropping weight during the winter.
Rookie mistake: Maintaining the same feeding schedule year-round.
Savvy solution: Horses need to eat to gain energy to keep their bodies warm all winter, so feeding extra hay and/or beet pulp and adding fatty oils to their diets will help them keep warm all winter long. Slowly start to increase feed intake in the fall, and decrease the rations as the weather warms. Reader budget tip: “Buy corn oil in bulk, and add a few ounces to your horses’ feed to save on higher-priced oils,” says Sharon James of Utah.
Problem 10: The need to soak beet pulp or other feedstuffs overnight.
Rookie mistake: Leaving the wet feed product to freeze in the cold barn.
Savvy solution: Keep a dry tub of feed to be soaked in your house or garage, and soak each batch as needed. Use your handy sled to drag the moistened feed to the barn at feeding time. Further savvy: Do the same for other liquid supplements, like glucosamine, or grooming supplies, like mane and tail conditioners, that would be useless if left to freeze in the barn.
[READ: Winter Feeding Checklist]
Problem 11: Keeping horse drinking.
Rookie mistake: Trusting that your horse will drink when he’s thirsty.
Savvy solution: Add half a teaspoon of table salt to each ration of soaked feed to help encourage greater water intake. Sometimes horses won’t get enough salt if left to just lick a salt block, making loose salt necessary.
Problem 12: Cold horses.
Rookie mistake: Putting a blanket on after the horse is already cold and/or wet.
Savvy solution: Develop a blanketing plan and stick to it. If you want your horses blanketed, blanket them before they get too cold and wet. This will help their bodies adjust to the temperatures better than if you occasionally blanket or un-blanket a horse.
Problem 13: Ice-ball build-up on horses’ fetlocks and in their hooves.
Rookie mistake: Trying to brush or pick off the ice.
Savvy solution: Keeping your horse’s long fetlock hair clipped can be much easier than trying to fight ice balls. This tip isn’t for horses that live outside full-time, though, because they need the hair to keep their legs warm. Clip the hair short (but not show-ring short) when the weather starts to turn cold, so ice-balls don’t get a chance to form. For ice inside horses’ feet, spray a non-stick cooking spray inside a cleaned foot, or line the hooves with petroleum jelly to stop snowballs from forming.
Problem 14: Filthy winter blankets.
Rookie mistake: Getting kicked out of the local laundry center for trying to wash a dirty blanket. (Most commercial laundries have a strict “no horse blankets” policy.)
Savvy solution: Keep a lightweight, washable sheet on over the heavier blanket, so all you have to wash is the sheet. Sheets can be washed at home, and they dry quickly.
[READ: Horse Blanket Care]
Problem 15: Moldy or mildewed tack.
Rookie mistake: Leaving leather tack in a dark, damp tack room during winter.
Savvy solution: Keep a 60-watt bulb on at all times in your tack room throughout the winter. This will curb mold and mildew growth, which thrives in dark, damp conditions, and help save your leather tack.