How to keep a stabled horse happy over the winter *H&H subscribers*

You may have covered the basics when it comes to his winter management, yet a horse who leads a largely indoor life during these colder, darker months can be left lacking in certain areas.

From promoting your horse’s skin health to making sure he is satisfied and stress-free, our veterinary and behavioural experts have outlined some points worth considering to keep a horse at his mental and physical best.

An appropriate diet

As humans, we’re encouraged to eat a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. A stabled horse on a diet of dried forage and concentrates may see little in the way of fresh food. Does he need to eat his “greens”?

“A horse’s ancestors, roaming the plains, would be eating grass in winter that was effectively dead,” says Professor Caroline McGregor-Argo MRCVS. “Yet these animals would still have an appropriate nutritional intake and would almost self-medicate by selecting certain plant species.

“Domesticated horses can run into problems in winter when they run low on vitamins and minerals,” she adds. “It’s important to feed a good forage balancer, to top these levels up.”

Caroline explains that horses don’t share our desire for different foods.

“I would hate to eat only nutritionally balanced porridge every day, but there’s no suggestion that horses need constant variety,” she says. “Hand grazing can add interest to the diet, as can carrots and apples, but these also introduce a choke risk and a lot of sugar.

“The key thing is to feed an appropriate and largely forage-based diet, monitor your horse’s body condition constantly and tweak his diet accordingly,” says Caroline, who adds that the winter months are a good time to correct any summer weight gain.

Companionship

A horse is a prey animal and not suited to long hours spent alone. His natural instinct is to move and forage as part of a group, so isolation in a stable can quickly turn into anxiety and stress.

Ideas for enriching an indoor environment include stable toys and mirrors, but can these ever be a substitute for real-life company?

“There’s not much evidence from a scientific point of view that toys help,” says Dr Debbie Marsden of the Society of Equine Behaviour Consultants, adding that some horses may experience frustration with feed dispensing balls.

“Toys can be a hazard in the stable, so use them with caution — and avoid leaving anything with the horse overnight while he is unattended.

“A safety mirror may be beneficial,” says Debbie, who explains that seeing another equine face can be soothing. “Test your horse’s reaction first, in the school rather than the stable, to make sure he likes what he sees.

“Some bossy, confident types take badly to a horse looking back at them with attitude, but most get used it. These horses may be happier with a mirror placed outside the stable.”

Sound can help, adds Debbie, so a yard radio can prove a useful distraction.

“Nothing really replaces social interaction with real horses,” she concludes. “Humans and other animals do seem to provide company, however. A horse will enjoy the comings and goings of a busy yard, where people pop in to his stable regularly to skip out or give him a quick scratch or a pat.”

Decent footing

Artificial surfaces are typically the terrain of choice in winter, when bad weather and lack of daylight can make hacking out a challenge. Will this lack of variety underfoot cause problems?

“I do not believe that working a horse only on a well-cared-for artificial surface over winter will have any detrimental effects on long-term soundness,” says Dr Liz Barr of Barr Equine Veterinary. “The horse’s cardiovascular fitness may decline if he is confined to a 20x40m school and does less hillwork, for example, but if that is a concern there are plenty of all-weather gallops available for hire.

“Overly hard ground has far more damaging effects on a horse’s soundness than overly soft ground, with regards to concussion and overall forces on the limbs,” explains Liz. “Horses working on soft ground over the winter — most commonly hunters — will tend to fatigue more easily, which may lead to a bad step and resultant injury, but with sympathetic riding this can possibly be avoided. Hard, rutted ground in the middle of summer is much less forgiving.”

If working on one surface or in an arena is the mainstay of winter exercise, Liz advises alternating the type of schooling.

“Putting the same stresses on the same structures every day can cause injury as a result of wear and tear,” she says. “Winter exercise must also take turnout into account. While time outside is essential for general wellbeing, turnout on heavily poached, deep, muddy ground or very hard icy ground is likely to be detrimental and result in injury if the horse cannot be trusted not to gallop about on such an unsuitable surface.”

Regular coat care

A clipped horse will need those layers replaced with a rug. Is it fair to keep him wrapped up all winter, or will he benefit from time unrugged to let his skin breathe?

“Horses roll primarily to shed hair and have a good scratch,” says Katie Preston MRCVS of Milbourn Equine Vets. “A horse might enjoy some time without his rug, on a warm, dry day, but he can still roll and scratch himself with it on. The key thing is that he is groomed regularly to remove grease and old hair from his coat and maintain skin health.

“One of the causes of winter skin problems is rugging a horse while he is still damp or sweaty, which provides the perfect environment for bacteria and infection,” she adds. “After working or washing him, put him in a fleece in his stable, in a solarium or under heat lamps. Brush him and replace his rug only once he is fully dry.”

Light in his life

The short, dark winter days can cause humans to suffer with a recognised medical condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which brings about depressive symptoms and lethargy. Are horses susceptible to this condition, sometimes dubbed the winter blues?

“SAD in humans is linked to a disruption in our circadian rhythms,” says Gil Riley MRCVS, of Pool House Equine Clinic, referring to the internal process that regulates our sleep-wake cycles over 24hrs. “Rather than being able to follow their natural circadian rhythms, as they would in the wild, our stabled horses are subjected to a human-driven routine. Additionally, prolonged periods of dark lead to increased levels of sleep-inducing melatonin, which, in humans, triggers a reduction in serotonin — a lack of which can cause depression.

“We don’t know for sure that the exact same process occurs in horses, but it would seem logical to suggest that stabling horses for long periods in low light or darkness may well have the effect of producing SAD like symptoms,” adds Gil. “Artificial light has proven benefits but must be used carefully, as strong lighting has the potential to cause discomfort to equine eyes. Allow your horse access to natural light for a generous part of each day — turning him out where possible, or opening a stable window.”

Ref Horse & Hound; 31 October 2019