Winter in central Carolina can be a miserable affair. Gray days with endless droning rain, punctuated by spells of bitter cold. It's enough to make us want to stay in the house and forget all about our horses until Spring. Unfortunately, our mounts need care year-round, and some special attention in the winter.
Water: Since they don't need to sweat to stay cool, horses naturally drink a lot less in the wintertime. But they still need a good supply of clean water, and drinking too little can be a real problem for many horses. While some hardy souls don't seem to mind plunging their muzzles into 33 degrees water after smashing a hole through the ice covering it, others aren't quite so tough or thirsty, and won't drink enough ice water to keep their dry feed and hay moving through their insides smoothly.
One thing you can do to make sure your horses want to drink enough water is to make sure they have adequate salt intake. A good trace mineral brick in the bottom of each horse's feeder is usually sufficient. An additional pinch of mineral salt mixed in the evening grain for each horse won't hurt.
When breaking the ice in water barrels or buckets, be sure to pull the broken ice out of the container... Otherwise it will chill the water and make it refreeze that much faster. Insulated SCUBA gloves are very good for this.
Consider dumping and replacing the water in your horse's bucket often. The water coming out of the spigot is well above freezing, and far warmer than the water left in a bucket after the ice is removed.
Adding a quantity of hot water to the water in your horse's bucket will hold off freezing for a while longer. Drink coolers are a good way to carry hot water out to the barn.
Riding: Frequent work is one of the best things you can do for your horse's health and state of mind any time of the year. But there are a few things to keep in mind in the winter.
Horses get cold and stiff-muscled just like we do. Plan on a good bit of walk-trot work to warm them up before moving on to heavier work.
Cooling out becomes extra important in cold weather. Going from hard, hot work to cold idleness all at once is a nasty shock to the horse's system. Plan on finishing your workout with a nice long walk, easy ground work, or some time on the hot walker.
The old expression about being "rode hard and put up wet" is a reference t the fact that a damp horse's temperature will drop even faster than a hot, dry horse's, creating an even nastier shock to the system. In cold weather, a horse who has been worked to a sweat should be kept active until he dries. A good towel rub can help speed matters along. If you're going to work a horse hard through the winter, you might consider a trace or hunter body clip, which trims the coat where it tends to get sweat-soaked by the tack.
Dust is a problem for those of you lucky enough to have indoor arenas to work horses in during the winter. Humans have a much better built-in dust filtering system than horses, so if the dust is bothering you, it is really causing problems for them. Sprinkle the arena lightly with the hose before riding if dust is a problem. It's a little thing, but it can prevent a lot of equine respiratory problems.
Stabling & Blanketing: Most horses are extremely tough when it comes to standing freezing weather. Their feet are equipped with special blood vessels that prevent frostbite, even when they stand in snow for weeks on-end. On northern farms where the horses have access to open stalls, it's not uncommon to find the animals happily tromping around the frozen pasture with icicles hanging from their bellies.
The Carolina climate is a bit tricky though. No man or beast is comfortable in freezing weather when it was 70 degrees a few dozen hours before. When the weather swings so radically from warm to cold, it may be advisable to stable and or blanket the horses the first night to allow the to acclimate a little more gradually.
Some of the things we do to "help" our horses in the cold actually interfere with their own built-in ability to stand winter. Blankets and heated stables tend to make the horse dependent on such artificial means to stay warm. People who show their horses in the cooler months like blankets because blanketed horses don't develop the thick winter coats that unblanketed horses do. But owners who choose to blanket a horse should do so religiously whenever the mercury drops below a certain point, since the horse has been deprived of his natural defense against cold.
Folks who work their horses hard enough, often enough, to justify trace or hunter clipping may need to blanket their horses when it gets below 40 degrees.
Feeding: Traditionally, horsemen tend to feed more corn in the wintertime, as the easily digestible carbohydrates are thought to give the horse energy to stay warm. Some feed mills add more corn or fat to their sweetfeeds and pellet feeds in the winter for this purpose.
Probably more important is hay. In the winter, horses need lots of hay to replace their dormant pastures. The equine digestive tract is designed to have a lot of bulk going through it every day, and the equine mind equates hours of chewing with contentment. Coastal/Bermuda and fescue are hays that you can feed in quantity (you might want to avoid the fescue if you have mares in foal). You have to be more careful with alfalfa hay, which is more densely nutritious, and can easily be overfed.
Overall, watch your horse's weight in the winter. You'll probably be working him less, so a reduction in ration might be in order... But under that thick winter coat, it's possible for the animal to lose considerable weight without it being obvious. So don't let the spring shedding show you a bony horse!
Hoof care: The all-engulfing mud makes it difficult to keep horseshoes on in the winter, so if you're not going to be riding much, and your horse's feet can stand it, it's a good time to go barefoot for a while.
If you're going to ride through the winter (good for you!), you'll probably wind up riding on some slippery ice and maybe even pavement. For these surfaces, borium is a must for safe riding. The farrier applies borium to a horseshoe in the forge or with a torch after the shoe has been fit to the horse's hoof, just before nailing it on. Very low, carbide-tipped studs may be an acceptable alternative to borium on hard, slick surfaces. The farrier applies these by driving them into holes he drills into the shoe, then nailing the shoe onto the horse.
Shod horses are susceptible to a problem called "snowballing" when there is snow on the ground. Sticky snow is packed into a hard clump on the bottoms of the feet until the horse's shoes don't even touch the ground. Where this is a frequent problem, the farrier can put nifty anti-snowballing rim pads between the hoof and shoe that pop the snow loose every time the horse raises a foot. Here in central Carolina, where it doesn't snow that often, cleaning the hooves out well, then spraying the soles with PAM cooking spray is usually sufficient to prevent snowballing.
Remember, horsemen (or horsewomen) have the responsibility to take good care of their mounts even when the weather is better suited for hibernating indoors. You might even find that winter isn't so bad once you get into the habit of riding in a slicker!
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