Late fall is the time to prepare for winter horsekeeping. Even if you scale back your riding time during winter months, or even give your horse the winter off, you need to promote his health in every way possible.
Your basic horse-care routine won’t change significantly in the winter. You’ll need to keep up your horse’s medications (if any), hoof care, grooming, and regular veterinary checks.
Your horse’s basic nutrition requirements also won’t change; he’ll need adequate water, forage, supplements, warmth, and exercise. The only changes will be his winter-specific risks and your risk-avoidance strategies.
Here, I’ll give you a winter-feeding checklist to help your horse stay healthy and colic-free, Plus, I’ll detail the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System, so you can check your horse’s condition and take immediate steps if he’s losing weight.
[ ] Encourage sufficient intake. Your horse needs clean water and plenty of it. If he lacks sufficient water to digest his feed, he’ll be at risk for colic (abdominal pain that can indicate a life-threatening condition), the leading killer of horses. His 10- to 12-gallon daily requirement may be higher in winter, because he’ll be relying on hay and perhaps grain, both of which have very low moisture content (10 to 15 percent moisture) compared with fresh pasture grass (60 to 80 percent moisture).
[ ] Monitor temperature. Offer your horse water between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, which will encourage him to drink enough water to stay hydrated. If he needs further encouragement, add warm water to his feed (such as hay cubes/pellets, pelleted feed, and beet pulp) to create a slurry. To keep ice at bay, invest in a water heater, tank de-icer, or heated water bucket.
[ ] Use a rubber bucket. When plastic water buckets freeze, they can be hard to empty; some crack when slammed against the floor or frozen ground as you knock ice loose. Heavy, black rubber buckets are much better at taking the abuse associated with daily ice removal.
[ ] Check for dehydration. Signs of equine dehydration are dry gums and teeth, lethargy, and dry, hard manure. Test with capillary-refill time; the skin-pinch test doesn’t work well through winter hair. Use your thumb to put pressure on your horse’s gum, when it turns white, take your thumb away and count the seconds until the gum turns pink again. If the change takes more than two seconds, dehydration is a concern.
[ ] Check his teeth. Have any necessary dental work done before winter hits, so that your horse will get the maximum benefit from his hay this winter.
[ ] Feed for warmth. If your horse has a dense coat and is turned out with free-choice hay, his internal heater will work around the clock. Horses are designed to heat themselves through the digestion of forage (hay or pasture) in the hindgut. A plentiful supply of good hay is your horse’s best defense against cold; it’s also your best way to help him avoid colic, founder, and ulcers associated with incorrectly feeding grain.
[ ] Analyze the hay. Have your hay analyzed so you’ll know whether your horse’s nutritional needs are being met. If it’s lacking in specific nutrients, ask your veterinarian to advise you about adding a supplement to your horse’s diet.
[ ] Supplement with care. Select your supplements on the basis of hay analysis; give your horse only what he needs and your hay lacks. Good hay provides adequate protein and high fiber, which produces heat from digestion.
[ ] Check his weight. Horses can lose weight very quickly. In very cold weather, inadequately fed horses will burn their stored fat. Next, if their ration remains inadequate, they’ll begin to burn protein from their muscles. Check your horse’s weight twice daily to protect him from unseen weight loss, using the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System (below). Remove his blanket, if you use one. Reaching under his winter coat with your hands, firmly check his withers, back, hips, and ribs. Learn his normal, healthy contours.
[ ] Watch the weather. Unusual cold can lead to unexpected weight loss. If extra-cold weather is on the way, increase your horse’s forage. Tip: Use a small-hole hay net for extra hay rations. This not only will keep the hay off the ground, but also will encourage your horse to eat small amounts safely and continuously as nature designed him to do.
[ ] Maintain his weight wisely. If your horse loses weight, try increasing his hay ration, or feed him a leafier type of hay that has a higher protein content. Grain adds very little warmth; fat adds calories, but not warmth.
[ ] Consult your vet. If your horse is still losing weight, consult your veterinarian about adding a small amount of grain to your horse’s diet, then add it in carefully and gradually.
[ ] Offer plenty of salt. Salt is an essential element of your horse’s diet year-round. It’s not overkill to have a salt block in his stall, run-in shed, and pasture or dry lot.
[ ] Offer daily exercise. Regular exercise will help decrease your horse’s colic risk. Fulltime turnout will allow him free movement day and night. However, sometimes, only daytime turnout is possible. And icy footing makes any turnout impossible. In that case, hand-walking is better than nothing. If necessary, lay down used bedding to create a walking path.
[ ] Relax. Horses are happy at temperatures that make humans reach for heavy parkas. If your horse is healthy, in good condition, unclipped, and has access to forage, water, salt, and shelter, he’ll probably be happier and better off with his own, home-grown winter coat.
[ ] Watch for shivering. That said, watch for shivering. If your horse is shivering, he’s not just cold, he’s too cold. Under normal circumstances, if he’s fit and in good condition, he shouldn’t be shivering. Bring him into a shelter (out of wind, rain, and snow), blanket him, and call your veterinarian immediately.
[ ] Know blanketing risks. If your horse is cold or losing weight, reach for more hay before you reach for a blanket. Blankets can rub, restrict movement, and — oddly — cause horses to become both overheated and chilled. Protecting your horse from rain and wet snow is one thing; holding in moisture from sweat is quite another. A horse that sweats under his blanket on a sunny day can become overheated and dehydrated; since he’s wet, he can also become extremely cold during the night.
[ ] Know when to blanket. Of course, some horses need a blanket. Blanket your clipped horse, as well as your very old, young, or thin horse. Also blanket your horse if you move him from a warm zone to a cold zone midwinter, as he’ll lack his natural winter coat.
[ ] Practice safe blanketing. If you use a blanket, remove it every morning. Brush off the blanket, and groom your horse. Check your horse’s body condition and for any signs of blanket rub. Re-blanket him at suppertime.
Check Body Condition
The Henneke Body Condition Scoring System was developed by Don Henneke, PhD, in 1979. This standardized system can be used by anyone for any horse breed.
To use this system, you’ll check your horse over six areas: neck, withers, shoulder, ribs, loin, and tailhead. You’ll then check to see how his condition rates on a scale from 1 to 9, as outlined below, courtesy of Dr.Katie Young, Equine Nutritionist, Purina Animal Nutrition.
Click here for a video from Dr. Katie Young, Equine Nutritionist, Purina Animal Nutrition, to check your horse’s body condition.
1. Poor Extremely emaciated. Spinous processes, ribs, tailhead, hip joints, and lower pelvic bones project prominently; bone in withers, shoulders and neck are easily noticed. No fatty tissue can be felt.
2. Very Thin Emaciated. Slight fat covers base of spinous processes, transverse processes of lumbar vertebrae feel rounded. Spinous processes, ribs, tailhead, hip joints, and lower pelvic bones are prominent. Withers, shoulders, and neck structure faintly discernible.
3. Thin Fat buildup about halfway on spinous processes. Transverse processes cannot be felt. Slight fat covers ribs. Spinous processes and ribs easily discernible; tailhead prominent but individual vertebrae cannot be identified visually. Hip joints appear rounded but easily discernible; lower pelvic bones not distinguishable. Withers, shoulders, and neck accentuated.
4. Moderately Thin Slight ridge along back. Faint outline of ribs discernible. Tailhead prominence depends on conformation, but fat can be felt around it. Hip joints not discernible. Withers, shoulders, and neck not obviously thin.
Back is flat; ribs easily felt, but not visually distinguishable. Fat around tailhead feels a bit spongy. Withers round over spinous processes; shoulders and neck blend smoothly into body.
6. Moderately Fleshy May have slight crease down back. Fat over ribs spongy; fat around tailhead soft. Small fat deposits behind shoulders and along sides of neck and withers.
7. Fleshy Might have slight crease down back. Individual ribs can be felt, but noticeable filling between ribs with fat. Fat around tailhead soft; fat deposited along withers, behind shoulders, and along neck.
8. Fat Crease down back. Difficult to feel ribs. Fat around tailhead very soft; area along withers filled with fat. Area behind shoulder filled with fat, noticeable thickening of neck. Fat deposited along inner thighs.
9. Extremely Fat Obvious crease down back. Patchy fat appears over ribs. Bulging fat around tailhead, along withers, behind shoulders and along neck. Fat along inner thighs may rub together. Flank filled with fat.
Jessica Jahiel, PhD (www.jessicajahiel.com), is an internationally recognized clinician and lecturer, and an award-winning author of books on horses, riding, and training, Her e-mail newsletter (www.horse-sense.org) is a popular worldwide resource.