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Maybe you like winter sports. Skiing, ice skating, wind surfing to the barn…or maybe you don’t, but if you have horses and they are under your care, like it or not, winter makes for some fun times no matter who you are. It’s all in the definition of “fun,” right?

Some of the modifications we make for the winter months with our horses are pretty straightforward and require nothing more than a little common sense, but others are tricks learned over years of trying new ways of doing the mundane, and living to tell about them. The regular, not rocket-science aspects of winter are simple. Keep warm, keep your horse warm, make your horse’s water stay in a liquid state, and get your chores done as quickly as possible so you can go back inside, grab a cuppa and get out of the cold!

Keeping yourself warm is easy enough; wear more, heavier clothing, boots and gloves, add a hat and water proof all outer layers. Pretty much, that will take care of you. If you live in the arctic tundra, you may want to go ahead and invest in some hand or foot warmers. For the bottom of your boots, slap on a set of treads to keep you upright on the iciest of terrain. Have fun!

Keeping your horse warm is fairly easy, too. His winter garb is on automatically, in the form of his coat. Even though, you may feel he needs more; layers, a heater, his own wood stove, or maybe he needs to come live in your heated garage; but likely, he’s okay. Or, he may need some help staying warm, and a good shelter where he can move around is your best defense for him to do just that. Horse keep warm by moving, so if he’s kept inside, a blanket may be needed more than if he’s outside. If you notice the bedding is worn, trodden and made into a pulp, try a blanket and see if he is happier.

Feed him extra hay, not grain. He needs two percent of his body weight in roughage, so a 1,000 pound horse needs twenty pounds of good hay per day, but add a bit more if it’s cold. Keep him dry and fed, make sure he drinks, and you’re golden. The drinking part can be a challenge and adding a little salt to a mash helps make him thirsty. Horses don’t drink much ice water, not as much as they need, so keep his water warm and in liquid form at 45 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit and you’re good to go.

A bit on blankets: Make sure the fit is correct and put it on properly. Waterproof is a must, pretty much no matter where you live, but if your horse is indoors all the time, you could skip that and use a less expensive version instead. Get a high denier count--anything over 1200 denier holds up pretty well, a 600 will tear if he sneezes too hard, 1800 denier is the bomb and lasts years. Remove the blanket daily (ticks love to get under there and burrow in) and groom your horse before putting it back on and if it, or your horse is wet, dry both before reapplying. This is because the horse can get chilled if blanketed while wet. 

Make sure your horse’s hooves are trimmed regularly so he can easily maneuver on frozen ground. If his feet are too long, they can’t grip or feel as if well-maintained. Remove his shoes, and if he must wear them, consult with your farrier about which kind might be best for snow and ice and ask about snow pads that help keep the snow balls from building in the concave part of the hoof. Anti-slip material may be added to metal shoes as recommended by your farrier as well. 

The ground your horse walks on must be checked often for debris, ice, mud and snow. You’ll do this daily while mucking, so if you find you are slipping, sinking or needing to dog-paddle to get around, you know your horse is also having trouble. Mud is the hardest thing to work around, because how do we dry wet dirt? Short answer? We don’t. No amount of shavings, straw, additional dirt or fans blowing will do much for deep mud. If you are able, move the horse to drier ground. You can add gravel, then rubber mats, but after awhile, the mats may become floating carpets, so use your best judgement on using them. Don’t add cat box gravel thinking that will help. Trust me, it’s a bad idea and I know this how? Yep, I did that once. Don’t, that’s all I can tell you. Pea gravel works, so does decomposed granite. Sand just holds the water and you’ll find that on top of thrush, you now get to deal with tendon issue. Again, trust me on this one.

Ice is another thing altogether though. For ice, we have solutions that work. Be sure and choose the best option for your corral and terrain. The cheapest thing to use is sand. You can buy it from the hardware store and it’s almost free. You can get gravel there if you prefer that, or you can buy salt that melts the ice. Be sure and check for safety with animals and beware that some horses will eat it right off the ice. Ask the hardware store employees, but also be sure and read the bag or bucket. Some of the ice melt products will burn animal paws, so be aware regarding your dogs. Research to find the correct product and cough up whatever extra it costs. 

If you have a pond or any other body of water in your horses’ pasture, be sure and fence it off during winter so they don’t inadvertently fall through the ice. Again, not rocket science here, but people don’t remember that horses will often run right across an icy, snow covered pond although they know it’s there. Out of sight, out of mind.

Riding in winter is another topic altogether, but the short version is this: Be aware of your horse, his mood, his pent up energy, the weather, the temperatures and the footing. Wear the correct kind of clothing for your riding conditions and remember that your horse can’t get out of his winter garb, and will heat up and sweat faster in the cold than you’d expect.  A wool cooler is invaluable for cooling down and drying off your horse. You may choose to clip, but please thoroughly research that option and be willing to go the extra mile to keep your horse warm if you take away his hair coat. Ride in the morning if possible, so he can cool down in the warmer part of the day and never leave him wet and cold if the temperature is anywhere near freezing. 

Enjoy your horse, Happily Ever After!

~Tanya Buck

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Tanya Buck
Published on 21-11-2019
Tanya Buck is an equine advocate, an author (101 Ways to Die with a Horse or Live Happily Ever After and White Horse, A Novel), horse trainer, coach and riding instructor. And if that list isn't long enough, she is also a member of the Front Range Animal Evacuation Team in Colorado and founder of the Horses Happily Ever After Project. Tanya believes that a holistic approach incorporating the horse's physical, mental and emotional state combined with reciprocal communication is most beneficial in creating the bond of champions. Her ongoing work to better the world for the horse drives her to keep doing what she does!