Get your Horse and Barn Ready for the Winter Season

With a little advance planning, you can ready your horse and barn for the upcoming deep-freeze.
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With a little advance planning, you can ready your horse and barn for the upcoming deep-freeze.

The days are shorter and temperatures are cooler, reminding us that Ol' Man Winter will soon be visiting. With a little bit of planning and preparation, you and your horse can enjoy a more comfortable winter this year.

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Keep in mind that the most important aspect of "winterization" is to protect your horse from the elements. This involves preparing your horse's living quarters, but you can also winterize your horse's body and mind. This overview of things to consider will point you down the right road with plenty of time to prepare.

Fat Equals Warmth
Horses are sturdy animals and were created to tolerate seasonal changes. "The biggest thing horses need to worry about in the winter is maintaining body temperature," explains Steven Sedrish, DVM, owner of Upstate Equine Medical Center in Saratoga Springs, New York. "Horses have a large fat reserve that helps keep them warm."

Like humans, horses need to take in extra fat and calories during the colder months to maintain a comfortable body temperature.

Increased hay and grain rations help horses stockpile their fat reserve. Every horse will differ in the ration he requires. "I have one geriatric Thoroughbred that gets a bucket-not a scoop, but a bucket-full of grain," Dr. Sedrish says. "If I gave that to my Quarter Horse, he would blow up!"

Fat supplements can boost your horse's body fat. The most common fat additive is vegetable oil; however, Dr. Sedrish recommends rice bran or rice bran extract instead. "Horses can utilize rice bran better than vegetable oil, and rice bran is 70% fat," he explains. "So if you're trying to build fat, this is the best way to do it."

Wintertime Wish List

? Your horse needs a well-ventilated shelter to protect him from the elements.
? Think about what your horse's body needs to stay warm: extra food, a good haircoat, and maybe a blanket.
? Stock up now on hay and other items that might become scarce during winter months.
? Be prepared for winter power outages.

Shelter from the Elements
Horses are hardy animals that are naturally capable of withstanding temperature changes, but they must have shelter. At a minimum, "Every horse should have access to a run-in shed," explains George Peters, owner and trainer of Win $um Ranch Enterprises in Schylerville, New York. "It doesn't have to be anything fancy. As long as it has three sides and a roof, it's enough to keep a horse comfortable."

The placement of a good run-in shed needs to be well thought out and designed so the open side faces away from the elements. In the Northeast, the open side of the shed should face south and slightly east. This protects horses from blustery winds and driving rains or snows. It also keeps horses cool in the summer, as it shades them from the hot westerly sun.

Even with a shed available to your horses, it's equally important to know and understand their herd dynamics. "If you have three horses in one turnout area and the boss horse won't let the other two into the shed at night or during a storm, you're going to have a problem." Peters emphasizes, "You've got to know your pasture herd's habits in the winter more so than at any other time of the year."

Healthy horses can acclimate to colder weather and will have warm winter coats by November. They can stand temperatures into the single digits. But horses with poor winter coats, those ridden in heated barns, or geriatric horses that may have problems maintaining weight usually need blankets to help keep them warm.

Barn Ventilation
If you have a barn, your horse will be more comfortable there at night and during severe storms. However, proper ventilation is probably more crucial in the winter than in the summer, because your barn is more likely to be closed up for warmth. "Some people build really nice horse barns, but sometimes they're so nice and snug, they don't have good airflow," Peters notes.

Any barn that is closed up during the winter can have negative consequences, especially for horses with respiratory issues, such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (or heaves). COPD horses-like humans with asthma-will cough uncontrollably if they don't have enough fresh air.

Chores, such as cleaning stalls, opening hay bales or bags of shavings, removing cobwebs, and sweeping or shaking hair from turnout blankets all release particles into the air. Without proper airflow through the barn, these particles can be trapped in the air.

Sensitive horses won't be able to tolerate being inside with these allergens. Something as simple as limiting cleaning activities to times of day when the horses are turned out or opening doors or windows just enough to create some air circulation usually solves the problem.

Winter Barn Chores
Winter weather can make barn chores difficult. Owners obligingly trudge out to the barn for routine tasks, such as feeding or cleaning the stalls. "You know the water is going to freeze and that it's going to be cold," Peters says, "so make plans to accommodate yourself during chore time so your horse doesn't have to suffer."

Any barn owner can make a few simple changes that will make chore time more bearable. "I built an insulated box that fits over the top of our water hydrant and hose reel to keep the water source defrosted," Peters explains. He even added a low wattage light bulb for a little extra warmth. "Sure beats carrying buckets of water, especially with as many horses as we have," he adds.

A small Salamander heater sits at one end of the barn. Peters discovered that not only does it help keep the people warm, but it can double as an oversized hair dryer for the horses. Once you get your horse used to the rush of air and the loud sound, it'll dry the sweat from a workout or sogginess from a wet snow in no time!

Winter Power Issues
Heavy snows or ice storms are inevitable in many parts of the country and often cause power outages. In most cases, that means there goes your water pump. You can purchase water-storage containers from most of the big-box home stores. A few 5 or 10 gallon already-filled containers stored inside so they don't freeze can come in handy in case of a water-pump breakdown.

"You can change the water in these storage containers every few weeks if you're worried about it becoming stale," recommends Tracy Bartick-Sedrish, DVM, of Upstate Equine Medical Center.

A small gasoline-powered generator can be especially helpful. It can provide enough power to ensure that the lights work in the barn for chore time or even to power the water source if necessary.

Feed Supplies
Before winter hits, arrange early for hay and feed deliveries. Waiting until the last minute to replenish your feed supply can be disastrous. Not only can weather make delivery difficult, but you may find your regular supplier has run short.

"If you buy hay from different suppliers, don't wait until the last minute to place an order," Peters cautions. "Your regular supplier may be out of stock, meaning you'll have to suddenly change the food your horse is eating. Horses need a consistent diet. Consistency is the key to nutritional health. A gradual change in hay or grain will reduce the chance of a belly ache or colic."

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Sand on Hand
Keep a bucket of sand around to make your facility safer for your horse and for you. Spread the sand on ice-coated barn aisles or pathways to make walking safer. Doorways, walkways, and gate areas tend to get the iciest.

The sand is even helpful in case your truck and trailer get stuck. Spreading sand around the tires will give your rig enough traction to get out of the slipperiest spots. "I always throw some sand on the ground before unloading a horse from the trailer, so he won't slip," Peters adds.

Fresh, Ice-Free Water
Regarding chipping ice from water buckets or barrels, Peters reminisces: "My grandpa always said, 'It's not much fun, but it's gotta be done.' " Believe it or not, your horse will drink between 10 and 30 gallons of water a day in the winter-sometimes twice as much as he does during the summer months.

Horses prefer a water temperature between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Even a thin layer of ice on top of a water trough or bucket will deter them from drinking. "I'm a firm believer in using water heaters in your horse's troughs and buckets," Dr. Sedrish notes.

"The most common health problems that we see in the winter are because horses are not drinking enough water," Dr. Sedrish says. "When a horse doesn't drink enough, his intestines can easily become impacted, causing him to suffer impaction colic and other problems."

In addition to using water heaters, Dr. Sedrish feeds his horses a warm bran mash once a week during the winter. "The horses love it, and it encourages them to drink more, as well."

To Blanket-or Not
Probably the most commonly asked question every winter is whether a horse should be blanketed. Healthy horses that have the opportunity to gradually acclimate to the colder weather will have warm, wooly winter haircoats by November. They can usually tolerate temperatures into the single digits (before adding a wind chill), as long as their coats are dry.

Horses that haven't grown winter coats, those ridden in heated barns, or geriatric horses that may have problems maintaining weight usually need blankets to help keep them warm.

Peters recommends blanketing a horse that will be in training all winter as soon as the nights begin getting cooler in late August or early September. Blanketing a horse early helps keep their winter haircoat shorter, which will allow them to dry off more quickly after a workout.

Older horses may struggle to maintain a safe body temperature without a blanket. "Personally, I don't blanket my older horses at the beginning of winter," Dr. Sedrish notes. "I give them time to grow their winter coats and get acclimated to the colder weather. During this time, I leave them unblanketed. Then-when it gets really cold outside-I blanket them." This will provide almost two layers-the winter coat and the blanket-for extra warmth.

Blankets are critical for horses that will be trailered during the winter. "I think it's cruel to trailer a horse in the winter without a blanket. The wind chill inside a trailer moving at the speed limit is frigid. I even put a cooler sheet underneath a winter blanket until the trip is over," Peters says.

Peters cautions that horses can be over blanketed. "I've seen people use two hoods and four blankets-all lined. If it warms up even a little bit during the day, the horse starts to swelter. That can be just as bad as being too cold."

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Winter Boredom Issues
Shorter, colder days usually mean horses spend more time in their stalls and less outside or in training. Like people, horses can become bored in winter when they have less activity and less time to play.

"My horse has one of the rubber balls with a handle on it," Dr. Bartick-Sedrish says. "He plays with it all the time. If I leave it in his stall at night, I'll find it in the barn aisle or the stall next to his in the morning."

There are plenty of horse toys on the market. Try several out and see which ones your horse likes the best. It'll keep him occupied and discourage the development of stable vices, such as weaving and cribbing.

Free access to hay will also help prevent boredom. Given the choice, horses would eat 16 hours per day. As grazing animals, they're used to having forage available at all times. And keeping hay moving through the gut cuts colic risk.

Indoor Footing Care
Not every horse owner is fortunate enough to have a place to ride indoors during the winter months. But for those who do, there are a few extra maintenance tasks for the colder temperatures.

Depending on the indoor arena, the footing can freeze or become clumpy if moisture finds its way in. At Hannana Stables in upstate New York, the bottom half of the walls of the arena are open to the elements. "I treat the footing in my indoor arena with calcium chloride," owner Kristen Fischer says. "This helps keep it from freezing."

Typically Fischer uses six 50-pound bags of a calcium chloride flake. One treatment will last between four and six weeks in her 80-by-150-foot indoor arena. "I've found the flakes work better than a calcium pellet because they mix in with the dirt better, whereas the pellets just sit on top," she notes.

Because Fischer uses a limited amount of calcium chloride during each treatment, it doesn't affect the horse's hooves or fetlocks. "We also make sure that we rake it in really, really well," she adds, "We rake the arena at least every other day, if not every day, to keep the calcium well mixed with the dirt."

Enjoy the Winter
Winter can be enjoyable. Horses love to frolic in the snow and kick up their heels in the cool weather. If you prepare your horse and barn in advance, you'll make it through winter safely and comfortably.