The winter season is difficult for most horse owners. A little preparation on your horse ranch can go a long way toward making it easier to face the coming winter challenges. And early fall is a great time to get a jump on these horse ranch preparations-before driveways get slick and horse pastures turn to mud. Here are some things you can do around your horse property now to ready it for whatever winter can dish out.
1. Bring in footing material for paddocks, confinement areas, and other high-traffic regions. Laying down some kind of footing material, usually sand, crushed rock, or some type of wood product, will help eliminate mud and cut down on erosion. This spells easier chores for you, and a safer, healthier surface for your horses to spend the winter on. You can use footing in sacrifice areas, paddocks, walkways, in front of gates, and in other high-traffic areas.
Check around your area to see what materials are most commonly used and available for footing-and don't wait too long. It is much easier for delivery trucks to back into paddocks and drive through pastures in the dry fall than it will be once those areas have become slick and muddy. Footing materials may also become hard to find later in the winter when the demand is high. Getting footing now will help you prevent a mud mess later on.
2. Check gutters and downspouts. Now is the time to think of repairs or additions to be made to your roof run-off system. Keep rainwater clean by diverting the water away from your paddocks to areas where it won't get contaminated. Good places to divert the rainwater include a grassy ditch, a dry well, a rain barrel, stock watering tanks, well-vegetated woods, or an unused portion of your pasture. Doing this will greatly benefit you by reducing the amount of mud your horse spends his winter standing in and by making daily chores easier. Also in the fall, clean leaf debris out of gutters and downspouts so they flow correctly-don't wait until the first deluge when everything is overflowing.
3. Bring your horses in off your pastures. If you're lucky enough to have pasture, fall is the time to baby it. Pastures grazed too closely in the autumn are subject to winter damage and slow growth in the spring. For winter protection, it's best if you allow the grass plants to produce a good amount of leaf, at least 4 inches. During the winter months, pasture plants are dormant and unable to regrow, so pastures can't survive continuous grazing. Also, soils are saturated and easily compacted during soggy winters. The best option for managing your horses during winter is to create a winter paddock or sacrifice area. Confine your horses to this area during the winter as well as in the summer when pastures become overgrazed.
4. Tarp your manure piles. This will help keep the nutrients you are trying to save in the compost and prevent them from being washed out into the surface waters, where they can cause a potential problem and contribute to more mud and yuck.
Be sure to store manure as far away as possible from streams, ditches, and wetlands to avoid potential environmental problems, as well as away from fence lines to be a good neighbor. And while we're on the topic, if you don't already pick up manure on a regular basis, now is the time to start doing so. A horse creates 50 pounds of manure per day. When mixed with rain and melting snow over the winter months, this quickly turns into 50 pounds of mud per day. Picking up manure on a regular basis will greatly decrease the amount of mud that you and your horse have to deal with over the winter months. Manure should be picked up at least every three days in stalls, paddocks, confinement areas, and high traffic areas.
5. Spread compost. Fall is a great time to spread compost. Compost is a rich soil enhancement that adds micro- and macronutrients and replenishes natural microbial life. All of this will greatly improve the health of the soil and plants. Spread compost in pastures during the growing season, no more than a half-inch layer at a time or a total of 3 to 4 inches per season in the same pasture.
6. Consider your emergency and winter storm preparedness. Do you have a flashlight for the house and barn hanging in easy access locations? Are extra batteries on hand? How about fuel for generators, cook stoves, or lanterns? Battery-powered headlamps that free up your hands are helpful if the electricity goes out. These can be purchased at camping stores or through catalogs. A battery-powered radio and a weather radio are very useful during storms and power outages.
And speaking of power outages, invest in a cell phone charger for your car so that you always have a way to recharge your cell phone. Finally, standard emergency preparedness starts with 911 information next to the phone. Include your name, address, and contact information, as well as veterinarian contact information, backup vets, and numbers for reporting power outages.
7. Review your lighting needs. Inadequate lighting is probably the most limiting factor in caring for and enjoying our horses in the winter. A good lighting system goes a long way toward getting chores done and making our horse lives more pleasant. Adequate outdoor lighting is wonderful for an arena or riding area, but it is critical for daily manure removal in paddocks. Are your stalls bright enough for grooming or doctoring a horse during those dark fall and winter evenings? When you're feeding at night, will you have enough light to see if the hay you're feeding is green and not moldy? Have you been meaning to put in lighting along a walkway or drive? Get an electrician in now and get that work done instead of waiting until temperatures are freezing and you're trying to feed by flashlight.
8. Buy your winter supply of hay. If you haven't already, purchase your winter's supply of hay now. It could mean cost-savings for you, since many third and fourth cuttings happen in the fall if Mother Nature has been kind with the weather. As the winter wears on, hay prices generally rise. You'll also ensure that you have a secure supply of feed when it gets scarce in midwinter and others are hunting around for a good hay source. When shopping for hay, choose green, leafy, fresh-smelling hay that's free of mold, weeds, dust, foreign objects, and discoloration.
Recent nutritional guidelines suggest that a horse should receive 2% of his body weight in hay (or forage) per day. For the "average" 1,000-pound horse with moderate exercise, that will be about 20 pounds of hay per day, or approximately 600 pounds of hay per month. If you buy hay by the bale, be sure you know what the bales weigh and compute your needs. One ton (2,000 pounds) of hay will last about three to four months per average-size horse.
For hay storage, you need a clean, dry, convenient area. Hay needs to be kept out of the sun and weather and away from dampness. Store it off the ground or cement (which wick moisture) on wood flooring or pallets. A spacing of 4 to 6 inches between stacks will help with ventilation and with reducing rodent habitat. If you don't have room to store a large volume of hay, perhaps a horsey neighbor might. Two (or more) of you could go in on the purchase of the hay and reduce the cost for all.
9. Set up a water supply that won't freeze or get icy cold. A horse drinks 8 to 12 gallons of water per day. Research shows horses prefer water temperatures of about 45 to 65 degrees and tend to drink less when water is very cold. It is important to realize that a horse cannot get enough moisture by eating snow. A decrease in water consumption can lead to colic, so make sure your horses are drinking an adequate amount. On very cold days, either break or remove ice in the morning and again in the evening. Also consider getting a stock tank heater or heated stall buckets. Plan ahead and have this equipment on hand before the snow flies. Again, when the temperature drops to sub-zero readings, tank heaters and thermal buckets sell out fast.
Another reminder: Older horses or those with dental problems may not be able to drink very cold water and may require additional warming of their water. In these cases, you can warm stall buckets with some hot water from an electric teakettle. Consider insulating outside pipes and faucets with heat tape or insulation materials. Frost-free hydrants can also be installed-check your favorite hardware store for recommendations.
10. Consider your own clothing needs. Nothing is worse than taking care of your horse in the freezing cold when you are wet from head to toe and chilled to the bone. Inventory your clothing for riding, daily chores, and farm work. Do you need a good, waterproof jacket? Mud boots? Insulated riding boots? Insulated, waterproof gloves? A warm coat? You may want to invest in some of the high-tech cold or wet weather gear featured at outdoor clothing stores. Think about layering, which will add insulation as well as flexibility to avoid overheating, perhaps a vest with a barn coat and a waterproof shell, along with proper gloves, a hat or other covering to keep head and ears warm. You'll also want a well-insulated pair of outdoor boots.
It is a good feeling to be as prepared as possible, even though there is undoubtedly some winter adventure still lurking around the corner. Getting these top 10 "to-dos" accomplished will give you time to relax in the cold days ahead and put you in a good position for next spring, too!