The date of Dec. 21 is the official start of winter, but for many people in the northern United States, colder weather is already here. With it comes several management issues horse owners should be aware of whether their horses live out in a pasture the majority of the time or are stabled.
Any horse can succumb to health issues if it is not properly cared for during winter. Quarter Horse News spoke with Dr. Khris Crowe, owner of Red River Equine Veterinary Services and Red River Reproduction Center in Gainesville, Texas, to get some tips on how to prepare for the season and keep horses in the best shape possible until relief comes in the spring.
Horses generally do well in cold weather, Crowe said, as long as they are in good body condition, have time to acclimate to temperature changes and can get under shelter in wet weather. Areas that experience big temperature fluctuations, like cold spells amidst warmer weather, can cause lots of stress on a horse if who doesn’t have the ability to grow or lose hair as quickly.
Having a properly oriented shelter in your pasture can help horses adjust, while providing them a place to get out of cold winds and rain. The structure should be southward facing to block heavy northern winds and can be angled to let in sunlight.
“If you don’t have casitas or sheds for horses to get into, they do pretty well if you’ve got woods,” Crowe said. “The horses will go into the woods, and the trees and branches do provide some good protection in winter storms. Depending on your situation, if horses have access to a nice little thicket of oak trees, I think that’s very good, as well.”
Fix Water Trough Ground
With your horse’s shelter squared away, the next thing you need to look at is the ground around your water tank. Trampled and muddy ground brings its own set of problems to the feet — fungal and bacterial growth, abscesses and cracks in the hoof wall. People often lay down gravel or rocks as a solution, but if your horse is experiencing foot tenderness, those rocks might cause him pain when he steps on them.
If the horse hurts each time he tries to go drink, he will eventually avoid the source of that pain — the trough — and become dehydrated.
“Anything that makes it hard for that horse to get to its water sources is bad because we have to keep our horses drinking water,” Crowe said. “Horses experience thirst in waves. If the horse is thirsty now and the rocks hurt its feet, or there are too many horses around the water trough and it doesn’t get to drink, oftentimes they won’t drink until that wave comes around again.”
Monitor Your Watering Systems
Even when the ground around your water trough is well groomed, if the water you’re providing isn’t clean, your automatic watering system doesn’t work or the water is constantly frozen, it won’t do your horse much good. Check your automatic waterers before going into winter to make sure they’re operating correctly, and keep an eye on them throughout the season so you can repair any that break.
“If it freezes so badly that you’ve got ice, breaking up water troughs one time a day is not sufficient,” Crowe said. “If your water sources are icing over, not only should the ice be broken, but the ice chunks must be removed. If you leave them floating in there, you won’t get back to the house for your hot cocoa before it freezes over again.”
Water troughs should be checked at minimum three times a day, she added.
Ventilate Your Barn
It might seem like horses that are stalled throughout the winter are better protected from cold weather, but a closed up barn, though it might feel warmer, can bring about its own set of problems. A barn that does not allow ventilation, where fresh air regularly flows through, is generally full of noxious gases like ammonia.
“Ammonia is a heavy gas. The lower you get to the ground, the greater the percentage of ammonia,” Crowe said. “For stabled horses, it is crucial to try to provide an airflow that doesn’t cause wind in the barn but also does not allow the buildup of ammonia.”
This can be done through the use of central rooftop cupolas and spinning fans which help move air through the barn, or by opening up the barn during the warmer part of the day. Otherwise, ammonia buildup can cause irritation to the nasal passageways, lungs and eyes.
“I would rather have a horse that had great air and was heavily blanketed than one in warm air that is full of ammonia,” Crowe said.
Avoid Electrical Fires
If your area is cold enough that you feel hanging heat lamps in your stalls is necessary, follow these rules:
- Don’t overload your electrical outlets by plugging in extra sockets.
- Only use heat lamps rated for outdoor use.
- Ground everything that can be.
- Only let a licensed and bonded electrician hang the wiring in your barn.
- Keep the areas around your outlets clean and cobweb-free.
“I’ve been a veterinarian for 41 years, and the most horrendous things I’ve ever seen have been barn fires,” Crowe said. “Many times they are set off by faulty electrical and the buildup of dust around the outlets. When it comes to heat lamps, buy the best, highest-quality bonded and licensed light you can because the beautiful coat on your show horse is no good if he dies in a barn fire.”