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The cold and icy conditions of our winter season bring their own set of challenges for horses and horse owners. The key to weathering these months is anticipation of potential problems and preparation to deal with any that may occur. Winter is hard on everybody, especially on those that have lameness problems, are geriatric, underweight, and suffer from other health issues. These are amongst the many factors to consider when planning ahead for your horse as the days get shorter.
While we often blame bitting issues on bad teeth, a healthy comfortable mouth with normal grinding surfaces and proper alignment is also essential for your horse to properly chew their hay and grain. This is particularly important in older horses and those that have difficulty maintaining their weight. Winter is often the toughest season to maintain weight on a hard keeper, so fall is the ideal time to have a thorough oral examination and dental float performed to ensure their teeth are in tip-top shape.
In the winter time there is a lack of succulent, easy to chew, highly digestible grasses that are a valuable supplement to the summertime diet. Without this backup, you may have to increase the amount of hay and grain fed to less hardy individuals. With the drought we faced this summer, hay is scarce and the nutritional quality of what is available is often less than ideal. You may have to resort to alternatives such as hay cubes, beet pulp, and added fats to make up their needs. In preparation for this, it would be a good idea to have your winter hay shipment tested for protein and carbohydrate levels so you know how much additional support you may require. With the hard keepers, get a weight tape estimate of their weight and visually assess their body condition now so you have a basaeline to track them with through the winter. Shaggy winter coats can be very deceiving, so the tape measure can be a big asset as well as careful hand palpation of fat deposit sites.
Ice and snow provide unique traction challenges. Most horses that are going to be laid off over the winter do quite well if left barefoot with regular trims. This helps to prevent the build-up of snow in the feet, which lead to fetlock, pastern, and foot trauma as the horse awkwardly slips off the ball. If shoes are required, your farrier can apply special pads that pop out the snow as it packs in around the shoe. Shod horses also benefit from additional traction in the form of studs or borium. Your farrier can suggest the most appropriate choice for your situation. Remember that hoof wall growth slows in the winter time so you can drop down to a longer shoeing cycle.
Fall and early spring are stressful seasons for pasture due to the variable climate and cold nights. This causes the grass to accumulate fructan, which is a particularly dangerous carbohydrate for laminitis-prone individuals. In addition, ACTH levels are naturally elevated in the fall, which also seems to predispose this group to laminar inflammation. High-risk animals include ponies, and those suffering from insulin resistance. Restricting pasture access during these periods can help to prevent a flare-up
Weather conditions mean that horses are locked up in the barn and exposed to higher levels of dust, mold, and ammonia than in the summer months. This is a tough time for those who suffer from allergic and reactive airway disease (heaves). There are several management strategies that, when combined with judicious use of medication under veterinary guidance, can dramatically reduce coughing and mucus production. It is far easier to prevent a respiratory condition from worsening than to manage an established crisis, so it is definitely worth the effort to provide dust-free bedding, good air flow, time outdoors, and well soaked (not just rinsed) hay. Remember that everybody in the barn is breathing the same air, so it is no use working hard to keep one stall dust-free if the rest of the group is still bedded on straw and eating dusty hay. You should also consider the indoor arena conditions, which can also be remarkably dusty if not managed properly. Finally, any horse with a respiratory condition should never be fed from a round bale. Ever.
Horses with arthritis suffer during the winter months due to cold, damp, and decreased activity. You can help them with oral joint supplements and there are now forms of NSAIDs that are much easier on the stomach than bute if you need long-term use. If your horse has a more serious lameness problem, be alert for signs that the situation is deteriorating. This includes weight loss, elevated heart rate, poor appetite, depression, and not lying down (because they are too painful to get up again).
Lastly, check over your horse’s housing conditions, with particular attention to hazards such as puddles in entranceways, which can freeze and become very treacherous as you step outside. Ensure that your pipes are well insulated and that there is a source of non-frozen water outside if they are spending more than a few hours at a time out of doors. Horses tend to drink less than they need in cold weather so you have to be sure that water is easily accessible and appealing. You don't want the first indication of frozen pipes and dysfunctional water trough heaters to be a barnful of impaction colic cases! Take a moment to check that sliding door and window tracks are clear so you don’t get stuck with one frozen in the open or closed position.
There are lots of details to consider when preparing your horse and barn for the winter months, but it is worth the effort when you can sail through the season in good health and without mishap.
Thank you to our friends at McKee Pownall Equine Services for this informative article!