Countdown to Winter

Tips from experts help you prepare your barn for the challenges of this coming season.
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The days are getting shorter and around a good part of the country trees are cycling from colorful bursts of leaves to the bare branches of winter. For those in the horse industry, the weather-related challenges of the season are just around the corner. So the big question is—are you prepared? 

Dressage Today interviewed several experts, including Kentucky-based architect, Joseph Martinolich, who shares ideas on how to keep the barn safe during winter; a team from Blue Ridge Trailers in Virginia, who give advice on how to keep your truck and trailer in top condition through the season; and trainers Jennifer Dillon and Michael Poulin, from The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester, Maine, offer tips on how they prepare for the intense Northeast winters.

Around the Barn

Before winter arrives, think of what you expect from your barn during the winter days. Because of the short days and long nights, you are likely to be more reliant on artificial lighting. You may use space heaters in areas or depend on weather stripping to seal gaps around barn doors and windows. 

Martinolich, an architect who specializes in equestrian buildings, advises clients to replace lightbulbs as needed and clean the light fixtures to get rid of debris. “When lights are clean, they actually work better and put out more light so it’s a more efficient use of the fixture. You also reduce the risk of fire.”

If you use space heaters, check that they are safe before winter arrives. “When I think of space heaters, I always worry about fire,” Martinolich says. “The wiring can be a hazard or if someone leaves it on and dust or hay gets inside, it could start a fire. Make sure the wiring is in good shape. Wiring can get dried out or pests can chew on it, so replace or repair any damaged heater. Check the areas where space heaters go and make sure they are clear of dust and are well maintained.”

Weather stripping is another winter essential. “Each year, we replace a lot of weather stripping,” says Dillon, barn manager at Pineland. “We keep the barn closed because we are on a hill so we get quite a lot of wind in the winter and the weather stripping prevents drafts.” Weather stripping endures much wear and tear, so checking its condition before you need it to seal windows and doors is important.

Ventilation should also be a priority in the winter. “You want to prevent drafts, but you don’t want to really close up a building,” says Martinolich. 

Horses’ respiration introduces a lot of moisture into the air, and during winter, this warm, moist air rises. If you have a closed building, the moisture goes up to the ceiling and condenses, causing frost and drips. Also, ammonia from urine and other toxic fumes that need to be dispelled from the barn collect where the horses and humans are, so ventilation is necessary for respiratory health. 

Keep in mind that a minor faucet leak or a slow drain in the summer can become an ice hazard in the winter. “We have wall-mounted faucets and we make little boxes with insulation that we place over the faucets at night to insulate them from the cold,” says Dillon (see above sidebar). 

Many barns are constructed with post hydrants. “The valve is actually below the surface of the ground, below the frost line,” says Martinolich. “Make sure your hydrant works well. Some people put heat tape around the top of the hydrant so trapped water doesn’t freeze in there. Before winter arrives, make sure the tape is in good condition because it can dry out. Since the heat tape is near a water source, be especially particular because water and electricity don’t mix well. Install heat tape properly or hire a licensed electrician.”

 Martinolich also reminds clients to clean their drains before winter arrives. “Floor drains often get clogged over time with dirt and hay. Over the summer a little water collects but it’s no big deal. In the winter, that water can freeze and create a slipping hazard. Also, water freezing in the drain can burst the pipes, creating a bigger problem.” 

In the winter it is best to shut off any water sources that you are not using, such as those in an empty barn or an irrigation system. Clear the pipes of water so they don’t freeze.

Barn roofs are another item to check before the snow and ice hit. If you have gutters, make sure they are cleaned out. “When the snow melts, you want the water off the roof as soon as possible,” says Martinolich. If you have a metal roof, check your roof guards. Those are the little stoppers that keep huge sheets of snow from coming off the roof. Snow falling is not only startling to people and horses in the barn, but can be dangerous if the snow falls where people or animals are likely to walk. The roof guards hold snow in place so it has time to melt or break as it falls, so check they are still in good condition after the last winter.

Before winter weather arrives in Maine, Pineland has a protocol for keeping the horses comfortable. Since some of the horses go south for the winter, management consolidates the remaining horses in the warmer barn that is more protected from the wind. 

“If it is so cold that the water buckets freeze, we use a rubber mallet to loosen the ice and refill the buckets often,” says Dillon. The farm has doors around the entrances to the hayloft that can be closed in freezing weather to keep the loft from drawing the warmer air up and acting like a flue. 

Finally, if it is predicted to be extremely cold, hay is moved out of the loft and stored in the empty stalls against the wall where the wind hits the barn. “That helps keep the temperature up a few degrees,” says Dillon.

Snow removal is another consideration in the winter. “We drag and roll our outdoor arena because that’s where the snow-plow operators put a lot of the snow from around our facility,” says Dillon. Any equipment stored around the barn is also cleared before the first snow so the plows don’t accidently
hit anything. 

Winter Travel

Winter in many places means a hiatus from horse events and, therefore, little need for routine trailering. However, in case of an emergency, trailering may be necessary. 

Donna Martin, from Blue Ridge Trailers, says special consideration for where you park your trailer is important year-long, but especially relevant in the winter. “Ideally, park on asphalt and under cover,” says Martin. “If you don’t have a roof to park under, you can buy a trailer cover. Cover your tires as well. The sun is detrimental to all trailer parts from the caulk on the roof to any rubber grommets, stoppers and the tires. If you can’t park on asphalt, park it on gravel. If gravel is not available, put the trailer on wide boards. The reason you want it elevated is because moisture sits on the ground and is bad for the tires, wiring and undercarriage.” 

It’s also important to check the sealant on your trailer roof before winter. Most trailer roofs are constructed of steel or aluminum and held together with rivets. These rivets are covered with sealant to keep the roof watertight. “The sun shrinks that sealant and dries it out so most roofs need to be recaulked every four to five years depending on how much sun you have and whether the trailer is covered or not,” says Martin. When it snows, the snow sits on the trailer and if the sealant is damaged, the trailer can start to leak. 

If your trailer has a water tank, be sure to drain it before there are sustained temperatures below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. “Water tanks may have a pump, so you not only want to drain the tank but unhook the connection between the pump and the water tank and run the pump for five more seconds to get all the water out,” advises Martin. 

If your trailer has living quarters, it needs to be winterized by a professional who will drain the entire system of all water and add antifreeze to prevent pipes from bursting. “If you have an auxiliary battery on your trailer to run the living quarters, fans or a pump, disconnect the battery and take it inside,” says Martin. 

“Do not let the battery be subject to extreme weather temperatures because it destroys the battery much faster than normal wear and tear. It’s also important to unhook the trailer plug from the truck if it is hitched up but you are not using it. In extreme temperatures the plug may drain electric current from your truck battery.”

If you need to drive in the winter, check the pressure of the truck and the trailer tires the morning before you leave. “Adequate tire pressure becomes particularly important in the winter because cold temperatures compress the air in the tires,” says Martin. “Here’s the rule year round: You ought to have a tire-pressure gauge and an air compressor at the farm because the time to check the tire pressure and to pump the tires is when they’re cold and before you ever travel.” 

Fill the tires to the PSI listed on the side of the tire. “People who don’t have a tire-pressure gauge or compressor travel down the road to the local gas station and the tires are no longer cold, so they don’t get a correct reading,” Martin says.

The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms trainer Michael Poulin and Dillon use high-quality, all-weather tires on the farm’s truck and the trailer. Dillon suggests keeping the trailer cleared when snow is plowed after a storm so it is easy to access in case of an emergency. If you do have to trailer a horse in the winter, she recommends sending him with layers of blankets that are breathable. “It is tempting to bundle them up, but the inside of a horse trailer heats up fast, and you don’t want the horses to be too hot or sweat while traveling.”

Poulin says, “If your truck is 2 years old or older, either you or a professional should check all your hoses and belts, the thermostat and especially the battery. Cold weather is hard on batteries. So consider replacing your battery if it’s more than a few years old and at the very least, check it often. If your truck is housed outside, it’s helpful to have a heating plug put in.”

Another safety tip is to take two or three empty grain bags and fill them three-quarters of the way with sand. “Put them in the back of the truck for the winter,” suggests Poulin. “Not only will the extra weight help, you’ll also have sand for added traction should you get stuck.”

From your barn to your truck and trailer, use these tips in preparation for the season to make your winter more comfortable for yourself and your horses. Whatever your winter goals are for your horses, be safe and stay warm. 

How to Insulate Wall-Mounted Hydrants

Jennifer Dillon, from The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms, explains how to make a simple box to insulate your wall-mounted hydrants:

The insulated box shown here is made of plywood, foam insulation and screws. The insulation boxes at Pineland have a handle on the top for easy moving.

The shape and size of your box will depend on the setup of your hydrants. Measure so the interior dimensions of the box cover the hydrant when the hose is unattached and it fits snuggly against the wall. It should rest evenly on the floor.

Build the box out of plywood and line it with the foam insulation.

Use the box to cover the faucets when not in use and with the hoses unattached to protect from freezing during cold temperatures.