One minute we were worried about fly spray and scorching heat. Then we blinked and it was late fall. How a season that comes every year still manages to sneak up on horse owners is a mystery, but more than a few of us will wake up one morning very soon to find pastures covered in hard frost and a winter to-do list that has suddenly taken on new urgency.
If the season has crept up on you this year, don’t worry. There’s still time to prepare for the frigid, snowy conditions that may lie ahead. From checking the fit of blankets, to ensuring your tractor is cold-weather ready, there are many winterizing chores you can still get done before the temperatures drop. Dedicate a weekend now to working down this list. When the worst weather hits, you’ll be glad you did.
To do: Review your blanket situation
If any of your horses will wear blankets this winter, now is the time to ensure they are in good repair and still fit. Even if you checked carefully before storing blankets this past spring, it’s worthwhile to spend a few minutes giving them a once-over.
Start by spreading each blanket out flat in a clean area with plenty of light. Examine it for damage, such as rips and frays in the fabric, separated seams, snaps and buckles that no longer work, missing straps, mold and mildew, or evidence of damage from mice or insects. Be sure to check both sides of the blanket and give straps and seams a good tug to judge their strength.
Because you’re starting early, there is likely still time to have blankets with minor damage repaired or to order replacement parts from the manufacturer. If you have a heavy-duty sewing machine and the necessary skills, you may be able to mend a blanket yourself. Otherwise, ask around the local horse community for recommendations for a service that specializes in equine blanket repair. You might also be able to use the Internet to a find a service farther away that will accept blankets for repair by mail, but time may be running out for that solution.
If a blanket is in good shape, make sure it still fits your horse. It’s important to check fit, even if the same horse wore that very blanket last year. A horse’s shape changes with age and fitness levels, and the body he had last winter may not be the body he has now.
To check the fit of a blanket, place it on the horse and adjust all the straps as they would be for regular wear. Then, scrutinize how it sits at the withers: Unless it’s designed to be cut back, the front edge of the properly fitted blanket will sit well in front of the withers—covering about three inches of mane hair. If the blanket fits well, you will be able to slide your hand easily between the withers and the blanket. If you can’t, the neck hole may be too small. This is a particularly important assessment because pressure on the withers from a blanket can be painful enough to cause lameness over time.
Next, slide your hand between the blanket and the horse’s shoulders. Can you move your hand easily through? Then, slide your hand between the belly straps and the horse’s barrel. A few inches of clearance will prevent rubbing without posing a hoof-trapping hazard. You can most likely adjust the belly straps for a better fit.
Finally, offer the horse a treat at ground level and watch to see if the neck hole of the blanket restricts his ability to reach it. A blanket that pinches high on a horse’s chest may be so uncomfortable that it limits how much hay he will eat over the course of the winter.
If a blanket doesn’t fit your horse this year, see if one of your spares will do the trick. Or, you may need to go blanket shopping. If that’s the case, don’t delay. The available selection will only become more limited as cold weather approaches, and you may end up paying a premium to get what you need.
To do: Check the condition of older horses
Most horses manage cold weather just fine. They are very good at keeping themselves warm by consuming large amounts of hay, fueling a metabolic “slow burn” that produces internal heat. With plenty of hay most horses can keep warm without sacrificing their insulating fat stores to use as energy. Older horses, however, can lose this ability.
When dental challenges make it more difficult to adequately chew stemmy forage, an older horse may be unable to eat enough hay to stoke his internal furnace. In that situation, the horse can quickly lose body condition, leaving him less protected from the cold. If the weight loss goes unnoticed under blankets or a heavy coat, an older horse can become dangerously thin within a few weeks during the winter months.
You can head off this winter weight-loss cycle now, before the temperatures drop. Start by determining the body condition score (BCS) of your older horses. A visual and hands-on assessment of fat deposits at strategic locations on the body (for a full explanation, visit www.equusmagazine.com), BCS is ranked on a nine-point scale, and an older horse will ideally have a BCS of 6 or 7 going into the winter months. This will allow for slight weight loss if the weather become frigid without putting his health at risk.
If your older horse is currently underweight, talk to your veterinarian about the safest way to bulk him up before winter. Supplementing a horse’s ration with corn oil or a fat-based supplement is usually a safe way to provide extra calories and pounds.
Another priority is making sure your older horse can derive the nutrients from his feed. Arrange for a dental exam to check for abnormalities that may limit his ability to chew hay.
If, however, your horse is so old his teeth have stopped erupting, it may not be possible to correct all of his dental problems. In that case, you’ll probably want to switch to a complete feed, which incorporates forage and other nutrients into a processed pellet—you may need to soak even that product in warm water to make it easier to chew.
Also don’t forget that many senior feeds can supply everything an older horse needs to maintain his weight. Bagged, chopped hay is another winter forage option for older horses with dental troubles. Your veterinarian can help you determine which feed or product might be the best choice for your horse.
To do: Winterize your farm
Frigid weather and precipitation can take a toll on the structures and equipment on your property. Just as you might prepare your home for the coming season, you’ll want to take steps to winterize certain areas around your farm.
Start by cleaning out gutters and drainage ditches. Debris blocking the path of water can cause rain and snowmelt to back up onto roofs and around the foundation of your buildings. If that water freezes, “ice dams” may form, leading to structural damage. While you’re at it, “harden” high traffic areas of your pastures, such as around gates and troughs, with a layer of gravel. This will help keep mud in check through a wet winter season. If you have the time and financial resources, you may want to look into having a geotextile fabric professionally installed in chronic problem areas.
Double-check that your tank water heaters are fully functional and that the heating elements of automatic waterers are working. Dehydration is the primary cause of impaction colic during winter months, and you’ll want to be certain that your horses have access to fresh water at all times. Horses cannot stay hydrated by eating snow. If any heaters or heating elements look worse for wear or questionable, repairing or replacing them now is an investment in your horse’s health.
Also service the power equipment you’ll need in the coming months. Change engine oil, flush and replace antifreeze, lubricate and tune up tractors, snowblowers and other such equipment. Make sure any cold-weather attachments, such as a plow blade, are in good shape and set out in an accessible location.
If you’ll be storing your trailer for the season, take an afternoon to prepare it. Not only will this lengthen its life, but you’ll be ready to roll in the spring. Pull up mats and scrub the interior, drain water tanks and remove tack and equipment. When the trailer is dry, close all doors and vents and park it indoors or, if that’s not possible, on a smooth, level, well-drained area. If you can do it safely, jack the trailer up on all four corners to take weight off the tires. If you’ll be using your trailer over the winter, ensure your tires—on both the truck and trailer—are suitable for the weather conditions and in good shape.
Finally, take a few hours to walk your fence line, shaking posts and inspecting boards as you go. Carry a hammer and wire tensioners with you so you can make minor repairs and mark areas that need more attention with surveyor’s tape. Then plan to address those tasks before the worst weather arrives.
To do: Stock up on supplies
Running out of anything in the winter months can be annoying, but being without certain items on a farm during rough weather can lead to significant and difficult-to-solve problems. Take some time now to inventory these crucial items and replenish if necessary:
• Hay. Ideally, by the end of summer your hayloft or shed was stocked well enough to get you through the entire winter, plus a bit extra. Hay is crucial to your horse’s digestive health as well as his comfort, keeping him warm and occupied. If your hay supply is low, start working the phones right now to purchase more. The longer you wait, the harder hay will be to find and the more you’ll have to pay. If you can’t find enough hay of sufficient quality, talk to your veterinarian about using hay cubes or another suitable substitute to stretch your supply for the full season.
• Medications and supplements. In theory, it shouldn’t be difficult to replace a horse’s medications and supplements in the dead of winter, but a sig- nificant snow or ice storm could lead to that scenario. If a certain medication is crucial to your horse’s health—such as bute for an older, arthritic horse or pergolide0 for a horse with pituitary0 pars intermedia dysfunction—talk to your veterinarian about having extra on hand, just in case. Also order supplements ahead of time if you’re worried a shipment could be delayed.
• Anti-ice materials. If you live in a location where icy is a common winter condition, stock up now on salt, sand or non-clumping kitty litter to provide essential traction around the farm. Salt is most effective, but some types can burn the paws of small animals or kill vegetation. On the other hand, sand and kitty litter are less caustic but very messy. In a pinch, you can use dirty bedding for traction, but it may insulate the ice beneath it, leading to a slower melt time. While you’re at it, make sure you have sufficient snow shovels and ice scrapers and all are in good repair.
• Flashlights and light bulbs. Light is at a premium during the short days of winter, so you’ll want to be sure you have what you need to see clearly. Check that all the lights in the barn work, and have extra bulbs on hand. Also, have a few flashlights at the ready, with plenty of extra batteries. Not only are flashlights vital in case of a power outage, but they can be very helpful when locating horses in paddocks and fields during the longer nights and darkened mornings of winter.
Winter may never be the easiest season for horsekeepers, but with a little pre-planning it doesn’t have to be particularly difficult. Take some time now to prepare, and you can relax to enjoy the best winter has to offer.
Sidebar: Winter Shoe Smarts
If you’ll be working your horse over icy, frozen or other questionable footing this winter, now is the time to talk to your farrier about traction devices and/or snow pads for your shod horses. You may not need to make any shoeing changes until the weather actually turns, but knowing what you want to try will speed up that process when the time comes.
You’ll want to provide a horse with just enough grip, but not too much. Studs, calks and similar devices that protrude from a shoe to allow it to “grab” onto hard footing tend to work well, but come at a physical cost. They can increase torsion of a horse’s limbs, leading to stress on the tendons, muscles and joints.
A good farrier will be familiar with the range of options, including devices that can be removed when not needed, and able to discuss them all with you. You can also increase traction of a shoe without protrusions. “Fullered” and “swedged” shoes have grooves along their ground surfaces. For many pleasure horses, this is all that’s needed to prevent slips on dicey footing.
If significant snowfall is expected in your area, your farrier can add “snowball pads” underneath most shoes to “pop” snow loose with each step and prevent the buildup that can make walking difficult.
If your horse isn’t shod, your only option for increasing traction is a “grippy” hoof boot, but that will require some vigilance on your part to make sure it fits well enough to not become a hazard itself. In a pinch, a thick layer of petroleum jelly or vegetable shortening can prevent snow buildup in an unshod horse’s hooves, but both tend to wear off quickly in winter conditions. Boots or shoes with snow pads are a better option for the duration of the season.
This article first appeared in the November 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #382)