Surviving January: Tips for Deep Freeze Horse Care from Michigan State's Vet School Experts

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A well-dressed horse could be underweight, although this redhead in Ohio looks quite healthy. Thanks to Ohio photographer Don Iannone for this great image.

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If anyone should know about cold weather horse care, it would be vets in the northern Midwest states. You know, the ones that they talk about on the weather channel: when the weather gets above zero, it's cause for celebration!

So when news is generated from a notable veterinary school like the one at Michigan State University, it has some credibility around here. Add the fact that the news came from the desk of a horse care expert like Dr. Judy Marteniuk and her colleague Dr. Elizabeth Carr, and you know this information will stand the test of time.

I am so glad to hear experts like them address the false security that buckling a blanket over a horse gives. I think blankets are great, but I think taking them off to look at the horse is an important thing to do. I am still struck by the images of those poor Amersham horses who died in England last year. They starved to death, but some of them had blankets on. That just didn't add up for me.

Receiving horse care information from Michigan State is the good news. The bad news is that the 2008-2009 winter in Michigan has been unusually cold, with temperatures well below freezing for many days in a row. This extremely cold weather can be particularly dangerous to animals that live outdoors and the MSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital is reporting an increase in the number of animals presenting with starvation and exposure-related problems.

Here are some common-sense tips from the vets at Michigan State. You may already know all these things, but your neighbors might not. You might also want to print this info out and post it at your feed store or post office.

NOTE: This information is written for the care of horses that are turned out all or most of the day. Adjust feed, especially grain intake, for horses that live in stalls or have a heated area.

1. During the winter it is imperative that you monitor your horse's body weight by putting your hand on them frequently! Furry coats make visual assessment of body condition impossible; the ONLY way you can assess your animals condition is by touch.

2. As temperatures continue to remain unusually cold, it is important to remember that your animals require MORE calories to maintain body temperature and body weight. Once an animal's body condition has deteriorated, it may no longer be strong enough to eat enough food to survive.

3. Remember older animals with poor dentition and young animals may require more feed, and be fed separately from other horses to ensure adequate intake.

4. Separate younger horses from older or debilitated horses as the dominant horse will frequently eat most of the food provided, resulting in some horses being healthy and others facing malnutrition.

5. Blankets and shelters will help decrease energy demands. However, remember a blanket hides the body condition so it is important to place your hands under the blanket and remove it at least every week or so to assess body condition.

6. Old horses with poor dentition (teeth) may require complete pelleted feeds that are easily broken down, as they may be unable to adequately chew fiber (hay). For the average horse that should weigh about 1000-pounds, at least one-third of a fifty-pound bag needs to be fed daily just to maintain the body weight on these handicapped old-timers, and more will be needed if severe energy demands are present. However, do not overfeed grain to active, normal horses or horses that live indoors.

6. Water intake is also very important during the winter. Many horses will suffer from impaction colics due to inadequate water intake. Older horses may require the water to not only be frost free, but warmed because they have sensitive teeth.

7. Remember, during extremely cold weather, to provide extra (free choice) hay, as this will generate more energy and comfort than just increasing the grain (concentrate) portion of the diet. Just the physical aspect of moving and eating will make the horse more comfortable. The hay fermenting in the large intestinal tract will generate heat and, finally, the horse will utilize the calories absorbed from the feed.

Keep in mind: An average, inactive horse needs to eat 1.5 to 2 percent of its body weight in food per day to just maintain weight without any other energy demands. In the winter, the amount needed will increase as the demand to keep warm will increase the amount of energy the horse expends. This means that the average 1,000-pound horse in good condition needs at least 20 pounds of hay during normal weather and may need as much as 35 to 40 pounds of hay and grain products during cold weather.

However: If your horse is considered underweight, the amount of feed needs to be calculated based on his ideal weight, NOT his current weight. While hay diets are ideal, certain animals will require grain, complete feeds or fat supplements to maintain body weight.