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Keeping Horses Warm in Winter

Wacky winter has reared its head. Keeping our animals warm that live outside is a topic of discussion where opinions run rampant. Here is my list of recommendations to help keep your horses warm and fuzzy. Not to mention avoiding things like rain rot, colic, and a plethora of other problems.

1. Always provide plenty of fresh drinking water. A heater in your water trough is a great idea. Horses won’t usually break ice to get a drink. Further, some horses don’t like to drink cold water, even if it’s not frozen. I like to offer my horse buckets of very warm or even hot water to drink if the temperature drops below 30 degrees Fahrenheit. I also make their feed into a warm mash every day in the winter.

2. To blanket or not to blanket. In my opinion, horses rarely need to be blanketed in western Pennsylvania. Unless temperatures are dropping into the single digits, leave the blankets off. Horses have a hair coat that allows them to shed water, and unless your horses are standing in the field with four inches of snow melting on their backs, they are probably fine. This does not apply to mules or donkeys! Mules and donkeys have a different haircoat and are desert animals. They have a much harder time keeping warm. The thing that keeps horses warmest is their digestive system. Offering continuous free choice forage keeps them warmer than anything else you can do. They don’t need to gorge themselves. Slow feeders keep them busy and cut down on the cost of hay. You can even get slow feeders that will wrap around an entire round bale. Not only does this reduce waste, but it could also potentially help avoid COPD or heaves. If you do decide to blanket your horse, be sure to brush them out thoroughly and make sure they are completely dry. Take the blankets off regularly and check for infection or rub sores. I have seen horses whose entire layer of skin pulled off when their blankets were removed in the spring.

3. Adequate deworming is paramount during the winter. We are back at the digestive tract again. A digestive tract burdened with parasites doesn’t work optimally. Since some parasites that plague horses encyst in the intestinal lining for most of their life cycle, you can deworm your horse today, and he will be laden with parasites again tomorrow. Deworming with a product that contains praziquantel right after the first frost optimizes the elimination of tapeworms-a major cause of colic in horses. You may want to consider a daily dewormer, especially during winter, or deworm monthly with products containing different ingredients.

4. Have shelter from the storm. I don’t stall my horses, but I use my barn and overhang as a run-in shed. The horses come and go as they please. We even have red light to burn off the chill. We also make sure the stall area is maintained regularly. Horses roll in the clean stall and clean themselves of mud and dirt much better than I can do with a brush.

5. Adequate hoof care is of foremost importance during winter. Horses need to be able to navigate snow, ice, and frozen ground. They also need to be able to get traction with their hooves to get up off the ground after lying down. Winter is the most common time of the year for older horses to get down and not be able to get back up. Work closely with your farrier and your veterinarian to prepare your seniors for winter.

Taking care of animals in the winter is a challenge. Diligence is your best friend to prevent impaction, pneumonia, and down animals. As the days grow longer after the equinox, we can look ahead to riding season. Just a few simple steps can ensure that your trusty steeds are ready to carry you into the sunset.

Happy Trails!

Dr. McMillen

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