How to help your horse cope during the winter months

  • With daylight hours diminishing and the colder, wetter conditions setting in, it is worth considering the challenges our horses will face in the coming months. While management changes are inevitable, some up-front planning can ease in a new regime and prevent the more common winter health problems.

    For horses spending more time indoors, the stable environment becomes critical. By far the most effective method of keeping dust-related problems, such as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), under control is to limit the presence of airborne particles.

    Good ventilation is vital, so a stable should ideally open onto fresh air. If the stable is in a barn, a good rule of thumb is that the turnover of air should be sufficiently brisk that spiders cannot weave their webs — that is, there should be minimal cobwebs.

    Dust-free bedding is always the best choice, but don’t take your supplier’s word for it — put it to the test by throwing a handful up into the air. If it leaves a cloud of dust, it is unlikely to be conducive to your horse’s health.

    Pay attention to forage quality, too. It has been suggested that almost all hay made in the UK climate is unsuitable to feed to horses without first being soaked. While this may not be quite so true after the warm, dry weather of this past summer, there is no doubt that soaking will always significantly reduce dust levels.

    Fluff out the hay within the net and submerge the whole lot in clean, fresh water for 30 minutes. Not only will the hay be much less likely to adversely affect respiratory health, but it will also be softer and more palatable.

    Grazing is of poorer quality and less calorie- and nutrient-dense in the colder months. The decreased nutritional content, allied to the fact that a horse burns more calories in winter to keep warm, can lead to weight loss.

    Some weight loss over winter is important, as it will mimic the horse’s natural metabolic state.

    A reduction of one body condition score over the season, from 3.5 (on a five-point scale) at the end of summer to 2.5 at the beginning of spring, is of major benefit in preventing equine metabolic syndrome — a condition that occurs as a direct result of obesity.

    Excessive weight loss is not to be encouraged, however, and it is important to replace nutrition and energy lost from grass with other sources, ideally with forage.

    Keep tabs on any fluctuations with a weekly weightaping, performed at the same time of day (first thing before breakfast is usually best), or store photos on your mobile phone to compare your horse’s condition week on week. A leaner horse is at much less risk of laminitis when the fresh spring grass comes through.

    Stiffening up

    The cold can cause joints to stiffen, especially in the older horse who is typically stabled more and ridden less.

    The most effective remedy is to maximise turnout, where conditions allow, so consider the management of land to maintain grazing throughout winter.

    It is generally agreed that supplementing a horse’s diet with a veterinary-approved joint supplement, such as one containing glucosamine or chondroitin sulphate, may help. Phenylbutazone (bute) can relieve aching joints, as long as your vet considers it appropriate.

    Worm control is particularly important during winter, when small redworm emerge en masse from hibernation in the wall of the large intestine — a process known as cyathostominosis. This can potentially damage the gut and lead to disease that can be fatal.

    Worm egg counts, performed every three to four months throughout the year and followed by worm treatment, if appropriate, are strongly advised. Because egg counts cannot test for the presence of the encysted larvae, however, it is vital that horses are wormed for this parasite with an effective product just before the onset of winter — check with your vet.

    The veteran horse will require extra care during colder months when the effects of conditions linked with ageing, such as PPID (Cushing’s disease), can worsen. Signs of Cushing’s include weight loss, laminitis, lice infestation and vulnerability to infections. Contact your vet to arrange a blood test should you be suspicious, or even as a pre-winter precaution.

    Bite-sized advice

    Toothcare should be a priority as winter approaches. A sore mouth may limit food consumption, while ice-cold water is less palatable and may increase dental pain, which may dissuade a horse from drinking and lead to dehydration.

    A timely examination by a vet or a registered equine dental technician will pick up any problems that can be addressed before they become serious.

    Clean, fresh drinking water should be available 24/7. Adding a kettle or two of boiling water to bring the temperature to lukewarm is a great tip to encourage a horse to drink.

    An older horse may benefit from a senior feed, which contain more easily digestible protein as well as extra oil. Consider rugging him both indoors and out, too, as he’ll have a decreased fat layer in his skin, so will lose more heat.

    Preparing field-kept youngsters for winter also requires some thought. Supplementing feed with youngstock mix is a good way of providing the growing body with sufficient energy, while rugs will conserve heat in thin-skinned animals. Remember that youngsters are known for trashing rugs, so be prepared to check twice daily that layers are not rubbing and are in place.

    How to avoid some of the most common problems…

    • Colic in horses: a potential killer, typically caused by worm damage, dehydration or sudden dietary change. Tackle parasites, ensure a constant supply of fresh, ice-free water and avoid any abrupt alterations to feed, forage or management.
    • Foot problems: wet, muddy conditions or soggy stable bedding will increase the risk of thrush, so pick out the feet twice daily to allow air to circulate and to remove any stones jammed in the clefts of the heel and frog. Hoof abscesses are common, usually caused by bacteria from soil that penetrates the white line where the horn of the hoof wall meets the sole. Excessively long toes can cause this junction to “spread” and increase risk of infection, so regular professional farriery or hoof trimming is a must.
    • Skin conditions: repeated wetting of the skin on the lower limbs can cause mud fever, a painful and sometimes stubborn infection. Minimising exposure to mud is important but often impractical. Hosing muddy limbs before drying them with a towel or leg wraps can help, while antibiotic treatment may be necessary to bring infection under control. A thicker coat can allow lice to flourish, leaving a horse so itchy that oozing patches and secondary infection can arise from excessive scratching. Coat clipping followed by a topical wash or powder should resolve the problem. Feather mites also can target hairy lower limbs — ask your vet for advice on anti-parasitic treatments.
    • Field injuries: herd dynamics and high jinks can lead to traumatic injuries in the field, so supervise seasonal turnout to reduce risk.
    • Laminitis: commonly associated with spring but also a winter worry — especially on cold but sunny days when grass sugar levels can be high. Cushing’s sufferers are vulnerable year-round because of their inability to metabolise sugar.
    • Elective euthanasia: sadly, some horses will struggle to survive the worst of the winter conditions. Your vet can help you decide whether a veteran has sufficient quality of life to see him through to the spring.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 4 October 2018