by Dr. Gregory Beroza
The northeast and other regions are getting pounded by severe winter weather, so it is time to reflect on the appropriate health care of our equine companions.
Winter brings cold weather, snow and frozen water and heating pipes. Fresh, clean and frost free water is a necessary mainstay of all living beings and our horses require a sizeable daily portion of potable water. Make sure all the pipes to your barns are sufficiently protected from freezing.
Properly applied, heat tapes are well worth it. Caution should be used in the application of heat tapes because wrapped too closely around pipes so that they cross, they can short or burn themselves out and can cause fires. Where appropriate, space heaters and heat lamps can be used, however, not all types are safe for use in barns. Make sure any extension cords, outlets, fuse boxes, and services are properly grounded and of sufficient size to carry the increased winter electrical loads. If you are in doubt about any of these electrical recommendations, please check with a qualified electrician to ensure your barn and horses’ safety.
Unless heated automatic watering sources are being properly used, outdoor water buckets often freeze. Being outside for several hours, eating dry hay without water and being returned to a barn with more dry hay and unpalatable ice cold water, is an unplanned and unfortunate set-up for a horse developing a digestive tract impaction. We often must think for and take appropriate precautions for our horses, no different than we would protect our children from winter’s worst elements.
Regular and timely feeding of warmed grained mashes enriched by adding dietary oils for digestive tract lubrication is a good method for increasing a horse’s necessary water intake and keeping their stools appropriately softer. Lesser winter volumes of food may be sufficient to nourish our horses due to their decreased activity. Some horses require the same, if not more feed, due to their increased need for energy to produce heat. Long winter coats may hide their true body condition so regularly check your horse’s body condition as each one is uniquely individual.
Unless properly blanketed and during moderate winter days, horses should not be turned out for as long as normal. During the coldest days, it may be more appropriate to keep them in the barn or turn them out for only an hour or two daily. While it makes for a beautiful postcard to see horses standing knee deep in fresh snow, practically speaking, it is often more dangerous than it appears.
Horses’ feet can ball up with snow or ice and cause them to slip, slide or be unable to get proper traction. Snow pads are one solution to lessening this problem. Borium and/or heel caulks applied to the bottoms of our horses’ shoes are another helpful solution.Care must also be exercised that horses not panic from being entrapped in knee high or chest deep snow which can cause them to act unpredictable. Horses can break bones in their feet and legs from poor footing, compounded by dangerous behavior or even panic due to a perceived entrapment in the snow.
Blankets and leg wraps can be used, both indoors and outdoors, to help your horse conserve their body heat. Each should be applied appropriately to avoid other problems. Making your horse too warm by excessive blanketing, both inside and outside the barn, is possible and should also be carefully avoided. Unless your horse is properly acclimated to the winter’s worst weather, the disparity in conditions between inside and outside the barn can cause a horse to sweat and loose even more valuable water. Just like with people, the cold wind blowing over your horse’s body increases the chill factor. This can create a more significant problem than the lowered temperature itself.
Try to provide your horses with a covered structure or wind break if they are to stay outside for any significant length of time, during the winter. You will find horses migrating to protection from the wind when they need it most. Similarly, seal barns from any drafts or air leaks, especially if the barn is not heated. A well-insulated draft-free barn filled with horses usually does not need auxiliary heat during average winter conditions, to keep it above freezing. Collectively, horses’ body heat is amazingly warm. This can be yet another reason not to turn some if not all of the horses out during the most severe winter days.
Heated barns should be kept above freezing, but not so warm that horses don’t grow a sufficiently protective winter hair coat. Be aware, however, that no ventilation whatsoever can create its own problem, leading to increased respiratory disorders. This issue is best accessed via the help of qualified veterinary and architectural/contractor input.
Winter time is often a slower and less intense time for equestrian use. So, this is a good time to catch up on several veterinary health care responsibilities such as examination and floating of our horses’ teeth. Late fall & winter vaccinations, useful against respiratory viruses, are just as prophylactically important as are their use against flu in people. Horses housed more closely increase their opportunities for sharing respiratory viruses and parasites, also making deworming very timely and appropriate. Any and all of these important equine medical issues should be discussed with and addressed in conjunction with your veterinarian, as part of your overall supervised healthcare program.