When October leaves start falling, you know that winter will soon be knocking on your barn door. And in many parts of the country, that means below-freezing temperatures, snow and ice, slush and mud. Sometimes the bad weather arrives surprisingly early, so to avoid having to struggle to catch up when cold winds are blowing, get started on your winter preparations now:
1. Protect medications. Check the labels of all injectable, topical and oral medications for information about proper storage. Many cannot withstand cold temperatures and will become useless, if not harmful, if they freeze. Either store cold-sensitive products in a climate-controlled tack room, or take them to your house for the winter. (While you're at it, check the expiration dates and replace any products that have gotten too old.) If you're unsure whether one of your drugs is still safe, ask your veterinarian. She can also advise you on how to properly dispose of old or damaged products.
2. Test water heaters. Before temperatures hit freezing, make sure any heaters you use for your buckets and troughs are working properly. Turn the heaters on and check the water temperature, then monitor the water meter to ensure your horses are drinking normally. If your horses' water intake seems to be below normal, investigate the possibility that you have a stray voltage problem.
3. Insulate your hand tools. Slip pieces of foam pipe insulation over the handles of shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows and other barn tools, especially those made of metal, to prevent frost and help protect your hands. Use duct tape to secure the insulation in place so it doesn't slip as you work.
4. Clean out gutters and drainage ditches. Fallen leaves and other debris that accumulate in your gutters and drainage areas can cause rain and melting snow to back up onto your roofs and along your foundations. If water pools and refreezes, it can create dangerous ice dams that can cause structural damage to your buildings.
5. Mow and drag your pastures. Cutting weeds before they go to seed will help keep them under control next year, and especially if you're taking your horses off the grass for the winter, dragging the manure will give it plenty of time to decompose. But don't mow to less than four inches---the grass still needs reserves to help the roots survive the cold months.
6. Inspect your roofs. Stand inside your barn and all sheds on a sunny day and look for defects that are allowing light to come through. Repair any problems you find or arrange to have the work done. If you're unsure about the integrity of any structure that houses animals, keep it empty until you can have it examined by a professional. Also look out for holes, cracks and rot in the walls, especially along the floor, which may allow rodents and other small creatures to get in.
Check to make sure all your snow guards are in place and secure. These devices are mounted on the roof to prevent large snow slides. They also keep the weight distributed evenly over the entire surface while melting, preventing large buildups along the eaves that can block or damage gutters. Snow guards are more common in northern climates where snowfalls are heavier, but it's not unusual in these times for weather patterns to fluctuate to the extremes, and you may get more than you expect. Even if you've never needed snow guards in the past, you might consider installing them.
7. Walk your fence lines. Shake the posts as you go, looking for loose boards or wires, protruding nails or fasteners, leaning or other signs of developing weakness. Carry a tool belt to make minor repairs as you go, as well as brightly colored tape to mark areas that will require more attention later.
8. Make sure lights are working. In the long daylight hours of summertime, you may not notice or care that indoor or outdoor lights at the barn have burned out---until suddenly the dark comes early, and you find yourself fumbling to change a bulb one evening. Make sure all your work areas will be well lit when you need them to be.
9. Stock up on snow supplies. A number of substances---salt, sand, ash, nonclumping clay cat litter---are useful for providing traction on icy footing. Salt is better at melting ice, but it can also kill vegetation and burn unprotected paws. Sand and ash are safer but can slow the melting process once temperatures start to rise and are very messy. Whichever choice you make, stock up long before snow is in the forecast. While you're at it, replace any older or broken snow shovels, scrapers, deicers or other winter hand tools.
10. Service powered equipment. Late fall is a good time to change engine oil, flush and replace antifreeze, lubricate and tune up snowblowers, mowers, tractors and other powered equipment, whether you're storing it away for the winter or prepping it for a season of use. Don't forget to check and replace any worn tires. If you use a snow blade attachment on your truck, tractor or utility vehicle, make sure it is oiled and in good condition, and place it somewhere you'll be able to access it readily when it's needed. Stock up on extra belts, hoses, clamps, antifreeze and similar supplies should you need to make emergency repairs.
11. Stockpile hay, feeds and necessary supplies. It's a good idea to have extras of all necessities on hand in case winter storms make deliveries or trips to the feed store impossible. How much hay you'll need to store depends on many factors, including how cold it's projected to be and how long your pasture can be grazed, but a good rule of thumb is to buy about 10 percent more than you think you'll need. Also keep about two extra weeks' worth of feeds and supplements on hand—just be sure to check expiration dates. You don't want to buy more of a supplement than you can use before it expires. Make sure your first aid kit has anything you might need in an emergency, and stock up on any medications or bandages you use regularly, for a horse with a chronic illness or injury, for example.
12. Inspect your blankets. Even if you cleaned and stored your blankets properly at the end of last season, it's a good idea to take them out and have a look at them well before you'll need them again. Mold, insects or rodents may have gotten to them while they were in storage. Check for loose straps, frayed fabric, holes or foul smells, and repair or replace any blankets that need attention.
Also make sure each garment still fits properly. Youngsters, athletes, seniors or laid-up horses may have gained or lost a significant amount of weight over the summer and may not be able to wear the same blanket again. A properly fitting blanket allows a hand to fit snugly under and slide around along the shoulder, withers and rump.
13. Prepare your horse's feet. If you're going to pull your horse's shoes for the winter, it's best to do it while the weather is still warmer, so he can acclimate before the ground is frozen hard. If you're going to keep him shod throughout the winter, consult with your farrier about your shoeing choices. If the footing will be slick, some horses may do better with traction devices, such as studs or borium. Snowball pads may also be necessary, to prevent wet snow from getting packed in under his feet.
14. Adjust the airflow in each stall. Too little ventilation in a horse's stall means that airborne dust can accumulate quickly to unhealthy levels; too much airflow can mean bone-chilling drafts. Check how the air is moving in each stall with one of these two methods:
• Scuff your boots in the bedding, enough to kick up dust. After five minutes use a flashlight or other light source to check the air. If you can still see floating particles, the air is too stagnant.
• Hold a strip of toilet paper, about a foot or two long, at arm's length at different places in the stall. You want to see it waving gently, to indicate a gentle breeze. If it's either hanging motionless or flapping vigorously, the airflow is too low or too high. Open and close doors and windows until you reach the ideal amount of ventilation. Usually, a few open windows on the leeward side of the barn, sheltered from snow and rain, provide a healthy supply of fresh air.
Winter weather can sweep in unexpectedly. But if you prepare now, you'll be ready to relax and enjoy the best the season has to offer, knowing that your property is safe and your horses are cozy.