Make the most of winter turnout for your horse

There's no reason to limit your horse's turnout when the temperature drops---he's well equipped to handle cold weather. In fact, with shelter and sustenance, they can even thrive in temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero.

One of the pleasures of wintertime is coming in from the cold. There’s nothing quite as nice as warming up under a blanket on the couch as the wind howls outside. You might think your horse would enjoy, or even require, a similar retreat to a warm barn during the coldest of days instead of winter turnout. Think again.

There’s no reason to limit your horse’s turnout when the temperature drops—he’s well equipped to handle cold weather. People find temperatures from about 50 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit most pleasant, but horses can be perfectly comfortable in 15 degree weather. In fact, with shelter and sustenance, they can even thrive in temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero.

Horses can thrive outdoors, even in the depths of winter.

What’s more, keeping horses indoors can actually precipitate health problems. For example, inadequate ventilation in stalls can lead to respiratory problems such as heaves. And the inactivity of confinement may slow intestinal function, which increases the risk of colic. Arthritis and other orthopedic conditions may also worsen when a horse receives little or no exercise. In short, your horse is better off outdoors during winter for as many hours a day as you can manage.

But that doesn’t mean that winter turnout means just tossing him into a paddock and heading back into the house. To maximize the benefits of winter turnout and keep your horse safe and healthy, you will need to provide a few more resources than you would the rest of the year and be vigilant in protecting against seasonal hazards. Those efforts, however, will be rewarded by your horse’s good health and contentment this winter.

1. Feed lots of forage

One of a horse’s primary mechanisms for dealing with cold weather is to stoke up his internal furnace. In cold weather, the hypothalamus, buried deep in the brain, signals the adrenal glands to increase metabolism. As a result glycogen, fats, carbohydrates and protein are broken down more quickly, and these chemical reactions generate heat deep within a horse’s core, warming him from the inside out.

The best and safest fuel for this furnace is hay. Roughage takes longer to break down, providing more sustained heat. Thus, when the temperatures drop, offer your horse an extra flake or two of hay. But resist the temptation to increase your horse’s grain ration, which could lead to a colic- and laminitis-triggering carbohydrate overload.

Hay is also a substitute for the gut-fill that grazing typically provides during the warmer months. A horse with an empty stomach is more prone to gastric ulcers0 and behavior problems such as cribbing. His risk of colic may also increase as gut function slows. It helps to view hay not just as a meal, but entertainment and even preventive medicine during the winter.

Ideally, a horse at pasture in winter will have hay available at all times. If feeding off the ground isn’t practical, a hayrack or box feeder is a good alternative. If you can’t provide free-choice hay, make sure your horse never goes for more than three or four hours without access to the forage, even if that means venturing down to the paddock just before bedtime to throw in another few flakes.

2. Provide shelter

Horses don’t need to be indoors during winter, but they do require protection from the elements, specifically wind and precipitation that undermine the insulation of their winter coats.

Shelters can be simple: In milder climates, a single wall or stand of evergreen trees might be all horses need to block prevailing winds. If winds are variable, a three-section windbreak with walls arranged around a center post like wheel spokes allows horses to choose which section offers the most protection.

If rain or sleet is the winter norm in your area, you’ll want to provide a shelter with a roof as well. The best protection is a simple, three-sided shed topped with a roof that directs water away from the entrance. Ideally, the structure will be located on ground that drains well and its back wall will face the prevailing wind.

If heavy snows are common in your area, make sure your shed is strong enough to withstand an accumulation. A steeply pitched roof—sloping away from the shed entrance—can help snow slide off before it becomes too weighty.

3. Blanket wisely

Equine outerwear can serve an important role in keeping horses warm and dry while turned out. Look for a waterproof turnout blanket that protects your horse against average winter temperatures, without causing him to become overheated. A horse sweating under a blanket in winter can catch a dangerous chill. With the enormous variety in blanket materials and styles available, it shouldn’t be hard to find the perfect match for each particular horse and environment.

Turnout blankets do, however, require extra vigilance on your part. You’ll need to check your horses daily to ensure their blankets are in good repair; a dangling strap or gaping hole can catch a leg and cause injury. You’ll also need to look under the blankets—if not every day then every third day at least—for signs of trouble. Conditions such as rainrot and lice can flourish unseen under the cover of blankets, while rubs and pressure sores on a horse’s shoulders and withers can make movement painful.

4. Minimize mud where you can

In areas where the ground doesn’t stay frozen for long periods, winter means mud, mud and more mud. Mud not only makes for messy horses, but it can pull off shoes—not by sucking them off, as you may think, but forcing horses to overstep onto their own heels—and strain ligaments and muscles.

Of course it’s best to prevent mud from forming in the first place. This means limiting the number of horses on each pasture, cultivating a good growth of grass during the warmer months and properly grading areas where horses congregate, such as around the gate, shed and water trough.

The ideal, of course, is often unattainable, but you can minimize mud that has already taken hold by adding porous material to the soil and facilitating drainage. For example, spreading a few truckloads of “crusher run” gravel in low-lying muddy spots will firm up the footing and raise the area to reduce the amount of water that collects. Avoid spreading wood chips or mulch on muddy areas, because these organic materials will simply break down over time and make the quagmire deeper.

5. Look out for ice

Although mud is annoying, ice can be deadly during winter turnout. A slip on ice can injure tendons or even break bones. Bare hooves offer little traction on a hard, slick surface, and horseshoes only make it worse, unless they are outfitted with ice studs or borium.

The easiest defense against large patches of ice is to keep water from pooling in your pastures. By using drains, grading and gravel, you can water from pooling. This, though, has to be done before the freezing temperatures arrive. (Be aware, however, that it’s illegal to drain wetlands, generally defined as any area saturated long enough to sustain wetland vegetation. If you are unsure of the status of your boggy area, contact your local department of natural resources.)

If you find yourself with a large frozen puddle in the pasture, assess how dangerous it is. For the most part, horses will avoid frozen patches when they can, but if the ice is blocking access to hay, shelter or pasture, action is necessary: Either move the resources to a different area or fence off the ice. In addition, keep several large bags of nonclumping kitty litter on hand (rock salt kills grass) to keep your path to the barn and the horse’s path to the field safer. Also station several bags near the field itself, if feasible, in case a horse wanders out onto ice.

When sleet or freezing rain cover an entire paddock with ice, horses who are already out will typically stay safely inside a run-in shelter until footing is safe, provided they have food and water. To get these resources to them, you’ll need footwear that provides traction and a sled or makeshift skid that allows you to pull your load behind you. If the horses are in the barn during an ice storm, hold off turnout until the conditions moderate. Look for other ways to keep the horses moving?turning them loose in the indoor arena for several hours a day or walking them up and down the aisle.

A serious concern after ice storms is the integrity of structures. Ice is heavy—a one-inch layer weighs about five pounds per square foot. A shed roof rated to hold a load of 20 pounds per square foot can hold about four inches of ice. This, of course, assumes the shed was built by a professional engineer with these specifications in mind and has been maintained to preserve its original structural integrity. If you have any concerns about the safety of your shed in an ice or snowstorm, or if the timbers start creaking or making popping sounds, move the horses so they will be clear should a collapse occur.

6. Keep the water flowing

Reduced water consumption in winter can significantly increase a horse’s colic risk. Keeping water available when horses are turned out in subzero weather can be a challenge, however.

Automatic pasture waterers designed to keep water flowing even in below-freezing temperatures are a great solution, requiring only a watchful eye to ensure they are operating properly. To keep water drinkable in traditional tanks, you’ll need water heaters, installed and turned on before the temperature drops. Should you forget to set up your tank heater ahead of time and the water freezes solid, some extra work will be required to ensure your horse has water to drink. You may be able to tip the tank over to slide the ice block out or even thaw the ice with several gallons of piping hot water, but chances are you’ll be stuck lugging buckets to the field for a while. Even if the horses come in at night to water buckets, they must have water available during turnout time.

Also encourage your horses to drink. Studies show that equine water intake drops in colder weather and when the water itself is extremely cold. Monitor the water level in your trough to see whether your horses are drinking. Automatic waterers don’t allow that, but some have a meter that enables you to check consumption. In addition, you can check your horses for dehydration with a skin-pinch0 or capillary0 refill test.

If you think your horse isn’t drinking enough during winter turnout, you might trigger his thirst by adding electrolytes to his feed. Another way of increasing a horse’s fluid intake is feeding warm, wet mashes of beet pulp, oatmeal and bran.

7. Protect his eyes

Although insects are long gone, your horse’s fly mask can still be useful this winter. Gusting winds can pick up fine dirt and debris and carry it directly into your horse’s eyes. Conjunctivitis, inflammation of the sensitive membranes around the eyes, is common where conditions are very dry and windy.

Equip any turned-out horse with a history of eye irritation with a fly mask if windy weather is predicted. In addition, masks will benefit horses with uveitis or cataracts who may find the “snow glare” from sunlight bouncing off a white ground annoying or painful. In these cases, a dark fly mask or one with very fine mesh can serve the same purpose that sunglasses do for skiers.

8. Shoe smartly

Horseshoes are supposed to make it easier to get around, but they can do just the opposite for a horse turned out in winter. Wet snow can quickly accumulate between the branches of the shoe, melting slightly with the horse’s body heat and then refreezing. The resulting ice balls can strain tendons or cause a horse to fall. Removing ice from a horse’s feet is difficult because most hoof picks aren’t long enough to provide sufficient leverage. Instead, carefully slip the claw end of a hammer under the edge of the ice ball at the heel and pry upward. A thick layer of Vaseline or Crisco can prevent snowballs from forming in a pinch, but a better long-term solution are snowball pads that pop out accumulated snow with each step.

If ice is a concern in your area, talk to your farrier about using studs or borium for added traction. Keep in mind, however, that a kick from a horse with studs can do significant damage.

Final thoughts

Now that you’re cozy and warm in the house, the last thing you might want to do is pull your boots back on and head down to the pasture to make sure your water trough hasn’t frozen over. And no one will fault you for grumbling as you brace against the wind on your way out the door. But your efforts to preserve your horse’s turnout time this winter can be repaid when you’re able to look out the window to see happy, healthy horses frolicking in fresh snow—and knowing that they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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