I'm considering turning out my 15-year-old Quarter Horse gelding for the winter for the first time. What should I look for in the pasture/fencing and my gelding's potential pasturemates? Ideally, how many horses per acre should be on the pasture? What kind of minimal shelter does my gelding need? Should I try to blanket him? How can I ensure my gelding is getting enough feed and the proper care?
Tory, there's no simple answer to your questions, because there are so many variables when choosing winter pasture, such as climate, conditions, and your gelding's individual characteristics, such as his age and health. That said, here's my opinion on how to best choose a winter pasture.
Check your gelding's teeth. Aged horses, such as your 15-year-old gelding, tend to have more teeth problems than younger horses. Such problems directly alter a horse's ability to derive nutrition from feed. So, before you ask your gelding to forage for food, ask your veterinarian to evaluate your gelding's teeth to make sure they're in good shape.
Check his weight. Is your gelding in good flesh? If so, he'll be more likely to do well foraging for food than if he's underweight, or has been sick or overworked prior to turnout. Treat any illness immediately. If he's underweight, follow your veterinarian's guidelines for upping your gelding's weight now, before winter comes. Consider turning out your gelding with a little extra fat to help keep him warm in very cold weather.
Check his skin and haircoat. Healthy skin and a good haircoat help a horse conserve heat. Ask your veterinarian to evaluate your horse's skin and haircoat for any problems.
Consider supplementing his forage. Your aged gelding is also prone to joint and arthritis problems that may limit his grazing range; if this is the case, supplement his forage with high-quality hay, or ask the pasture owner to do so.
Assess the pasture's physical shape. Assess the pasture's fencing and terrain, and check for any potential hazards, with a walk-through with the pasture owner. If you see anything you think might harm your gelding, or any weaknesses in the fence, cross that pasture off your list. When you introduce your horse to his new, safe pasture, lead him around. Show him the fence boundaries and any variables in the terrain.
Look for appropriate shelter. Most healthy horses have no problem wintering without a formal shelter, if they have access to natural shelter. If blizzard conditions will be a problem, look for a sturdy run-in shed, with at least two walls and a roof. My horses usually stand outside the shelter, except during heavy rain. I don't like blankets on pastured horses; the risks usually outweigh the advantages.
Assess your gelding's pasturemates. Assess the personality of the other horses in the pasture for "pecking order"; timid horses have more trouble doing well than aggressive ones, and need close watching and extra feeding. The ideal density of horses on pasture ranges widely. Your best bet is to meet with the pasture owner, and ask him or her how horses have fared in the past.
Check your gelding daily. If you do find a suitable pasture where your gelding appears to be thriving, check him daily. Halter him, groom him, and check for any injuries. Keep up regular farrier and veterinary appointments. And don't forget to bring your boy goodies to reward him for taking good care of himself.
I live in a dry, desert climate. I enjoy being able to ride year-round, but my 9-year-old grade trail horse mare tends to have brittle, chipped hooves. Should I add biotin to her diet, and/or apply a topical moisturizer? If either or both, what would you recommend?
Becky, good hoof care ranks very high on the list of issues concerning sound, healthy horses. Under normal circumstances, proper, balanced nutrition is all that's needed. But when environmental influences are extreme, then we need to step in to help. Having wintered in southern New Mexico for 10 years, I can certainly appreciate your problem.
If you're comfortable with your mare's basic nutritional program and she's still having hoof problems, then it's definitely time to consider using a commercially prepared supplement designed to help develop strong, healthy hooves. Consult your veterinarian and farrier for advice on what's right for your mare. Also, ask other riders in your area what they use, and ask your feed dealer what he or she thinks, and what sells the most.
Conduct the same type of information-gathering for hoof dressings. I do think a hoof dressing applied two to three times per week makes a difference. (Tip: If you use hoof boots on your mare when you ride, apply the dressing first, so it'll soak in better.)
Regular trimming and rasping seems to make the barefoot horses' hooves healthier. We always kept our water troughs overflowing to create mud, which helps to keep hooves moist.
I hope this advice helps you preserve your mare's hooves for many more hours of enjoyable trail riding.
Barney Fleming, DVM, vets more than 60 endurance rides per year, gives endurance clinics and workshops, and is a professional lecturer on the sport of endurance riding and other equine subjects. He and his wife, Linda, own and operate Spirit Horse Escape, a horse camp and bed-and-barn in Custer, South Dakota (www.spirithorseescape.com)