Pre-Winter Horse Health Survival Guide

How Do You Prioritize Horse Health on Your To-Do List?

Fall is the best time to be on horseback. It’s the best time to be at horse shows. It’s the best time to travel. No wonder you’re not keen on the idea of staying home to add a load of pearock to the paddock gate area or work on the water line to the barn.

But you don’t need to feel guilty. You just need to feel like you have a grip on the situation.

Winter is coming, and whether you live in the snow belt or not, last winter taught us all that winter weather shows up in strange places sometimes, and we all need to plan for it, whether it’s a normal occurence or not. 

Today, The Jurga Report offers some tips to help you plan now to avoid some problems in the winter. Most of the things on this list won’t take a weekend to do, but they will require some thought. 

When winter lands on your property–or the away-from-home property where your horse will be living this winter–it will be too late to worry about hiring a backhoe to fill in that ditch in the pasture. You may need to hire one to move snow, instead, though.

Looking at it all those winter to-do’s on your SmartPhone productivity app can make you feel anxious, or even depressed. Each item on the list looks as important as the next. Where to begin? Can you ever get it all done?

A better way to start is to click through your photo gallery from last winter and remember what your problems were. And what your fun times were. Are those problems still a risk for this winter? How can you make sure you’ll enjoy more fun time this year?

Wellness appointment

As always, begin with your horses’ health as it is today. Make sure that they have a veterinary appointment scheduled for a general fall wellness exam and whatever vaccinations you will need from now until spring. Before the vet comes, think about what you need to discuss. Be sure you are there to meet with the veterinarian. Have a list of questions, and write down the answers so you won’t forget. 

If you will be showing this winter, make sure you check the new US Equestrian Federation requirements for vaccinations. The rules change on December 1.

Travel and breeding plans

For instance, do you plan to travel out of state with the horses over the winter? Will you be attending clinics or riding at a trainer’s indoor arena? Might you sell or lease a horse? Do you plan to have any new horses move into your barn? Will you be breeding a mare in the spring? This is information your vet needs to know now to make the best decisions for you on vaccinations, Coggins tests, health certificates and general care decisions.

Weight and body condition score

This fall, ask your vet to help with a weight evaluation. Ask for a serious Body Condition Score, with an accurate weight estimate, if you can. An actual weight might require hauling your horse to a vet clinic or feed store or showground that has a weighbridge. Compare the current weight you’re told to last year’s at this time, if available and to the end of last winter, if you have those statistics. Take a few photos, before the full winter coat comes in, while you’re thinking about body condition. How has your horse’s shape changed?

Hormone testing

Ask your veterinarian about hormone testing for insulin and ACTH, if it’s not too late. These hormones are involved in Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) and Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID or “Cushings”), two common hormonal disorders in horses that are associated with laminitis. Knowing your horse’s hormone levels is important.

Medication orders

Are your horses on medications? Ask your vet how far in advance you should stock up for the winter, in the event of being cut off by big storms. Horse owners learned the hard way last winter to order in advance. Medications that arrive by mail or UPS monthly are a great plan, but not if they arrive on the day when your horse runs out. How much should you have in reserve, and is the shelf life of each medication different?

Winter storage

Get out all your horse’s winter gear and try it on now. Horses change shape. If you use a different girth in the winter because your horse has a thick coat and your prefer not to clip, make sure it fits this year. If you only use blankets in the coldest weather, try them on now. Do they still fit? Will they still fit when your horse adds a full winter coat? Make sure none of the buckles is rusted and that nothing broke or ripped (or was eaten by mice) over the summer.

If you have blankets that don’t fit, donate them to a local horse rescue charity. They’ll appreciate them.

Winter feeding

Plan your horses’ winter diets now. If you will be changing feeds, introduce the new feed gradually. If you buy it in bulk, plan how you will store it safely and hygienically, where horses can’t get into it–no matter how hard they try–and where rodents can’t gnaw into it. Save the tags that list batch numbers and dates, in case of a recall.

Have you always fed the same feed? Many new advances in feed mean that there are more choices now than ever before. Feeds for particular ages or conditions of horses may be helpful to you. Even if you don’t change, make sure you know about new choices, and remember that the same feed or supplement might not be right for all the horses in your care.


It’s probably too late to change your mind now, in many parts of the country. If you’re thinking about pulling shoes, pull them at least a month before the ground freezes. Don’t make your horse limp around with sore feet on hard, lumpy ground. If he’s not sound without shoes, put the shoes back on, opt for winter shoes with traction, and try your barefoot-in-winter idea next year, but start in September. Talk it over with your farrier now.

Trailer cleaning and winter access

Your trailer doesn’t take the winter off, even if you live in the deepest snow zone and don’t plan to use it. You will need that trailer if a sick or injured horse needs transport to a vet clinic. Trailers are also needed in the off-season to be ready for evacuation from fires and floods.

In the fall, clean out your trailer and resist the temptation to use it as a storage locker for lawn furniture and cavaletti. Wash the mats with a power washer and let them dry outside. Scrub every inch of the interior with an antiseptic cleaner. Then put everything back where it belongs. Park the trailer out of the way, but somewhere it can be hitched easily. Put some plowing flags around it. Make sure your plow driver knows to plow it out, and then make sure you shovel out the hitch and wheels every time it snows. Make sure it’s registered, too.

Put any supplies you can think of in the trailer that you might need in the middle of the night: a manure fork, a flashlight (or two), a snow shovel, maybe some old quilts and blankets stored in a plastic crate so mice won’t chew them. 

Emergency contact list

Make a list of phone numbers of family members, helpful people, neighbors and abutters, veterinarians, and your town’s emergency and public officials. Don’t depend on your SmartPhone, since its battery may be dead if power goes out. Print the list out. Make copies of it to post in your barn, put one in the glove box of your hauling vehicle, in your house, and share with your family and anyone who cares for your horses.

Your disaster plan

A more formal disaster plan for your animals and property is another subject: hopefully you already have one! If you don’t, make an appointment with yourself to work on one. Soon. Print out the resource booklet from the Northwest Equine Stewardship Center; this is one of several guides to planning for disasters that are available to horse owners. 

Property maintenance

No two properties are the same; everyone has unique problems. The wind is terrible at the top of the hill, the ice builds up at the bottom of the hill. 

Look at your property objectively. Have you made any landscaping changes that affect drainage? Will ice form in the same places as last year? Do you have some home repair supplies on hand in the event of broken windows or a leaky roof? Do you have duct tape, WD-40, bungee cords, basic tools, nails and not-dried-out black Sharpie pens on hand?

A critical task is cleaning up your property before snow or ice are a risk. Don’t leave trotting poles or jumps or barrels in an arena to freeze in place–and don’t underestimate when that first hard frost might happen! Sometimes winter snow is so deep, arena objects will be invisible, and a safety risk to both horses and humans. 

Another big task is pre-checking your electrical service to any outdoor lighting or water tank heaters. Make sure there are no shorts, and everything works as it should while it’s still warm enough to climb ladders or dig up power lines. Know where your outdoor extension cords are, just in case. Make sure no one moves them.

Worst case scenario

Do you know the horse burial laws in your town or county? Can you legally bury your horse on your land? If so, what are the requirements? Many communities forbid the burial of horses, and laws can change, so it is a good idea to find that out now. 

You may need to have a dead animal hauled to a cremation facility in the winter. Find out where that facility is. Your vet will have this information, but if your vet is a solo practitioner, get the information now and keep a record of it, in the event your regular vet is unavailable during an emergency.

Don’t forget…

And how about you? Make sure you have all the gloves and hats and boots on hand and that they all fit. A surprise early storm will soon show you what still works and what doesn’t, in the event you’ve lost or gained weight, cut your hair or now need to wear glasses. Put your glasses on a releasable cord for barn chores. Order some vitamins and make an appointment for yourself to have a checkup with your own doctor. Make sure you have kerosene lanterns, flashlights and batteries, a battery-operated radio, non-perishable food and plenty of good books to read, in case you’re snowbound. A solar-powered cell phone charger belongs on everyone’s Christmas list!

Somehow, you will get it all done. Winter is a season to enjoy, and shouldn’t be a cause for worry. Just be prepared–prepared to have fun, and prepared to sleep soundly at night, knowing you’ve thought in advance about your horses’ health and safety in the winter months. Let it snow!




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