Barrel racers by nature tend to pay meticulous attention to the care and conditioning of their horses, and wintertime is no time to slack off. Generally speaking, horses are built to live outside in comfort year round with few amenities provided by their owners. However, winter horse care requires attention to detail in areas such as nutrition, water, minerals, shelter and hoof care.
The average horse needs to consume 2 percent of its body weight per day to maintain body condition, and the bulk of a horse’s diet should come from forage, either hay or pasture. It is generally understood that some horses require less than 2 percent of their body weight per day in feed, especially if they are easy keepers, while others—pregnant mares, working athletes, breeding stallions, older horses—could require up to 3 percent of their body weight in feed per day.
Terry Swanson, DVM, equine veterinarian and one of the founders of Littleton Large Equine Clinic in Littleton, Colorado, says winter nutrition is found mostly in hay.
“It’s really pretty basic. Horses produce more body heat from hay than they do grain,” Swanson said. “Horse owners think grain is a high-energy feed, which is true, but as far as creating a higher body temperature to keep the horse warm, fiber digestion is what ultimately keeps your horse warm.”
Make sure your horses have access to plenty of hay to help keep them warm on a cold day, and also keep in mind it is good to give them more hay on a cold night, or at least the choice to eat more.
If your horse is closed up in the barn and it’s 40 degrees inside, it probably does not need three extra flakes of hay. Outside horses with a round bale often do not move much. They leave the round bale only to get water, so movement to keep warm does not occur much.
“If you are observant, you will notice every now and then your horse will run around for no apparent reason, but the actual reason is to get warm. Eventually they make their way back to their groceries,” Swanson said.
In addition to adding more forage to your horse’s diet during the winter, Tom Wendel, DVM, of Wendel Veterinary Services in Penrose, Colo., says a horse in need of dental work will have a tougher time during the winter.
“Going into the winter months, horse owners need to check their horse’s teeth. If a horse has bad teeth and is not able to get all the necessary nutrients from their forage, the horse will lose weight and become thin,” Wendel said.
Make sure your horse, especially senior horses, have had their teeth floated on schedule before the cold sets in and make sure there are no sharp points present.
“Horses in the 15-year-old range will start to experience the degeneration process of their teeth, which will make some horses too uncomfortable to even drink water. The annual check-up of your horse’s dental health is extremely important,” Swanson said.
Wendel stresses horse owners know the condition of their horse’s teeth before winter settles in. Although it may seem costly at the time, it will save your horse a lot of pain and your pocketbook a lot of cash in the end.
The art of blanketing
The million dollar question, to blanket or not to blanket, will probably never have a right or wrong answer, but whatever you decide to do, always put your horse’s comfort first.
A recent study conducted by Colorado State University suggests that blanketing horses is unnecessary. It states that horses have their own “self-blanketing” process that works like chill bumps do on human skin.
Horses use energy to control their body temperature, which is why forage is so imperative during the winter, and movement will generate a considerable amount of heat. In addition, horses must always have a way to get out of the wind in order for their self-blanketing abilities to fully function.
However, as some barrel racers tend to compete year round, it is a good idea to blanket your horses in order to keep them from getting chilled and cold after a hard workout.
“Blanketing depends on what you are doing with your horse,” Swanson said. “If you are competing year round, keep your horses blanketed to keep the hair coat down so when it’s time to cool your horse out, you are not dealing with chilled bodies.”
In addition, horses that are clipped need to be blanketed, since the fluff is already taken off. If you have an older horse that gets chilled easier than other horses, a light blanket doesn’t hurt.
If you blanket, remember a horse’s hair coat fluffs out when it is cold. This adds air space like a down jacket, and that air fills with warmth, making the horse’s natural coat more efficient. Blankets crush down that air space, so you need a heavy enough blanket to provide true warmth.
If you are unsure if your horse is warm enough, watch your horse’s behavior. Horses that are cold tend to huddle up in a sheltered place together and may not be willing to move very far from the pack. Shivering may make it seem as if your horse is freezing, but shivering is actually a perfectly normal way to warm up. A warm horse may shiver for a short while when he is cold and still be happy.
Wet, cold weather is much harder on horses than dry cold. A rainy 35-degree day will cause a lot more shivering than any other weather condition. Damp, cold days like these are the time when horses really appreciate some sort of shelter to keep themselves even semi-dry.
Trees and low places act as a natural wind barrier and can also provide some protection from precipitation. Ideally, a three-sided constructed shelter positioned to keep wind, snow and rain out provides the best protection from winter precipitation for pastured horses.
Water and minerals
Water is the most important part of any living being’s diet. During the winter, it is extremely important to keep an eye on your horse’s water availability and water intake.
With increased hay consumption, colic is more likely, especially if your horse is not drinking enough water. Make sure to check the horse’s water source twice daily and remove all ice or provide a safe heated tank or bucket heater. Horses prefer to drink water that is slightly warm in the winter, and their water consumption typically increases if water is kept de-iced with an automatic de-icer, or manually.
In addition, continue to provide free-choice access to minerals, such as a salt block, throughout the winter. This should also increase your horse’s water consumption.
“Horse owners need to be aware that all the same things go on in the winter that go on in the summer with what their horse’s body needs,” Swanson said. “Ironically, if your horse is in the sunshine, supplements are not very critical. Their water consumption is the most important thing, especially in a horse that is working and getting hot and sweaty in the winter time.”
The little things
Small details that may seem inconsequential can actually make a big difference in the equine mood during winter.
When riding your horse during the winter, be sure to plan additional time for proper care both before and after rides.
Your bit should be adequately warmed prior to riding to keep your horse comfortable.
Horses that sweat during winter rides need to be dried out completely before they are put away or blanketed. A thick winter coat can hold moisture for a long time, and drying can be a very time-consuming task. A water-wicking cooler made of fleece or wool can easily be applied to your horse to draw the moisture out. Put your horse’s cooler on to dry your horse before blanketing. Blanketing a wet, sweaty horse is a recipe for chilling him, which invites sickness.
When it comes to exercising our horses, we may feel like we are freezing our fingers and toes off, but cold does not bother our equine sidekicks as much.
“The cold does not bother horses as much as humans,” Swanson said. “Their physiology is pretty remarkable to adapt to the heat during the summer and to the air and dry cold during the winter.”
Conditioning your horses through the winter months is just fine.
“The most important thing to remember if you condition your horse throughout the winter is cooling your horse out when you are done working them,” Swanson said. “I cannot stress that enough. In addition, when trailering in the winter, do not close the trailer up tight; horses need fresh air circulating. If not, they are rebreathing the same humid air, which is higher in bacteria count. Keep the windows open, even if just the screen, and be sure to blanket if it’s extremely cold.”
Some competitors prefer to pull their horses’ shoes during the winter and give them a break. However, when demands of the show or rodeo season are year round, time off is sometimes not in the cards.
“I honestly think feet were better when they got a break during the winter, but nowadays with all the events throughout the year, a lot of people don’t have another option,” Colorado farrier Bill Clymer said. “Horses’ feet grow slower during the winter, but if horses are kept inside under lights, their feet don’t change much. Outside, they tend to slow down a little. Some horses I have seen go seven to eight weeks without having to be reset. But the most important thing horse owners should remember is every horse is an individual.”
In addition, horse owners need to pay attention to ice chunks that build up in horses’ hooves,—it will look like they are walking on high heels—which is not good for their tendons, ligaments or muscles.
“Ice chunks, or snow balls as I like to call them, need to be removed from your horse’s hooves whenever they appear, or at least twice daily,” Clymer said.
Clymer says the best way to avoid snowballs is to insert pads under your horse’s shoes. The best way to remove snowballs is to tap the shoe with a hammer, and the snow will gently fall out.
About Our Experts
Terry Swanson, DVM, is a partner at Littleton Large Animal Clinic in Littleton, Colorado. A graduate of Colorado State University, Swanson is a nationally known lameness expert and has served as the president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association and has been named Colorado Veterinarian of the Year.
Tom Wendel, DVM, is a graduate of Texas A&M University who completed his surgical and internal medicine internship at Interstate Equine in Oklahoma. Following his internship, Wendel worked on the racetrack for three years in Grand Island, Nebraska. Today, Wendel is a sole practitioner based out of in Penrose, Colorado, where he specializes in equine sports medicine and surgery.
Bill Clymer is an American Farriers Association certified carrier from Pueblo, Colorado. Clymer shoes many rodeo and performance horses in Colorado, including the Yates’ horses. Clymer has more than 27 years of professional experience as a farrier.
Email comments on this article to [email protected].