Keeping your horse healthy and happy and your facility maintained is a year-round endeavor. Fall is an especially good time of year to arrange veterinary care, assess your horse’s condition, secure winter forage, and restore your pastures in preparation for winter. As a conscientious horse owner, your to-do list can seem daunting. Take heart! With the help of our stable of experts, we’ve broken down fall horsekeeping tasks into four easy-to-tackle steps with accompanying checklists.
Step 1: Provide Optimal Veterinary Care
During the fall and winter, keep your horse on his regular health-maintenance program, advises Bonnie V. Beaver, DVM, a professor at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine.
“Prevention is the key,” agrees Cherry Hill, a Colorado-based instructor, trainer, and horsekeeping expert. “It’s much easier to keep your horses on a regular vaccination, deworming, and dental schedule than it is to fix a problem at midnight in January when it’s zero degrees.”
Vaccinate. Fall vaccinations largely depend on your location and your horse’s risk level; follow your veterinarian’s recommendations. Lindsey Moneta, DVM, of Pacific Crest Sporthorse in Oregon, often recommends the influenza/rhinopneumonitis vaccine in the fall. She notes that this is a risk-based vaccine; if your horse is a good candidate then the vaccine is generally given every six months. “This is particularly important for horses that continue to go to United States Equestrian Federation-sanctioned competitions through the fall and winter,” she says. “Other risk-based vaccines may be given in the fall depending on your geographic area.”
Control parasites. “As summer and fall grasses get shorter, parasite loads tend to increase,” Beaver says. “This increases the importance of parasite-control programs, including deworming.” Work with your vet, and use fecal egg counts to design a fall deworming program that works yet decreases the risk of creating drug-resistant parasites.
Schedule dental care. Plan for a dental examination for your horse now to help avoid a dental emergency during winter. Healthy teeth and gums will also help him chew properly so he can make the most of the nutrients in his feed to sustain him over winter.
Practice colic prevention. In late fall and winter, your horse might spend more time in his stall and less time exercising than in spring or summer. He’s also more likely to eat dry hay than wet grass. If he doesn’t drink enough water, his digestive system slows down, putting him at risk for colic. “Horses tend to colic in the fall because the change in weather causes changes in management practices,” says California- and Arizona-based equine nutritionist Clair Thunes, PhD. “Feed two tablespoons of [loose] salt each day to keep up your horse’s sodium level, which will keep him drinking and keep up his gut motility [movement].”
Geld. Fall is a good time to schedule gelding procedures, says Hill. The cooler temperatures and absence of flies makes the recovery process easier on the horses.
Step 2: Evaluate Your Horse’s Condition
Evaluate your horse’s overall body condition now, so you can make any necessary adjustments before winter sets in. This is especially important if you ride and work him less over the winter or if he’s an older horse, notes Moneta. “Fall is a good time to make sure your horse is as healthy as possible so he has a good chance of having an easy winter,” she says.
To assess your horse’s body condition, use the standardized Henneke Body Condition Scoring System (available online), which explains how to check your horse in six areas: neck, withers, shoulder, ribs, loin, and tailhead. You’ll then see how his condition rates on a scale from 1 to 9.
Ideally, horses should be a 5, says Thunes. That means when you look at your horse you can’t see his ribs, but you can easily feel them. His topline should be level and you shouldn’t see a peaked spine.
“I’m not opposed to horses being a 6 going into winter, especially if you live in an area that has harsh winters,” Thunes adds. “On the other hand, a horse that’s a 4 should probably gain a little more weight.” To help keep your horse in top condition, follow these guidelines.
Increase caloric intake. Horses naturally burn calories to keep warm. To help senior horses and hard-keepers gain a few extra pounds, start by substituting some of your horse’s grass hay for alfalfa. Alfalfa’s higher calorie and protein content encourages weight gain and muscle development in working horses. Also consider feeding your horse beet pulp, which is high in readily available fiber that provides a good source of calories without adding a lot of starch or sugar.
Or, encourage healthy weight loss. Winter can actually be a good time for an overweight horse to shed extra pounds. “If you have a horse that could lose some weight and has a shelter, maybe don’t blanket him so he burns a few extra calories,” says Thunes. “A ration balancer is a good way to provide minerals and nutrients without the calories.”
Supplement with care. Whether you’re giving a feed or a ration balancer, provide the ration based on the feed manufacturer’s recommendations. Products are formulated based on a horse’s weight, age and activity level and when the instructions aren’t followed, the horse’s diet may be lacking.
Limit grazing. As rain returns in fall, pasture grass starts to green up again before winter settles in. This grass’ high sugar levels can put your horse at risk for fall laminitis. “Fall grass can be just as dangerous as spring grass for horses that aren’t accustomed to it and/or horses that are more prone to laminitis, which includes those that are insulin resistant and/or have Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction—or Cushing’s disease,” Moneta says. If your horse is at risk, reduce the number of turnout hours, use a grazing muzzle, and/or turn him out in a dry lot.
Tune up his training. Keep your horse at peak training and conditioning as long as the weather allows, so he’ll have the best start possible in the spring.
Step 3: Assess Winter Forage
Think ahead so your horse will enjoy optimal forage over the winter and nutrient-rich pasture grass when spring rolls around.
[READ: AGING HORSE NUTRITION]
Secure a hay supply. Farmers can only “make hay while the sun shines.” Once hay goes into storage, the price goes up, and it’s sold quickly. “Buying your winter’s supply of high-quality grass hay and storing it properly is the most important thing you can do for your horse’s health and wellbeing,” says Hill. “If you wait until the last minute, you might not be able to find good-quality hay and you’ll pay a premium.”
Spruce up the storage area. At the same time you secure a hay supply, clean your hay-storage area, and make sure it’s pest-free and protected from the elements. If you store hay in your barn, minimize dust to protect your horse’s lungs. Sweep and clean your entire barn now, while your horse is outside, and keep dust to a minimum all winter long.
Control rodents. “In the fall, rodents will likely want to move from your pastures into your barn to make it their home for the winter, so be sure you have your rodent control program up and running,” says Hill.
Step 4: Encourage Good Pasture Health
Proper planning can help ensure that your pasture is plentiful after winter.
Let pastures rest. Pastures need rest and rejuvenation to regrow. During fall and winter, turn out your horse in a dry lot, paddock, or sacrifice area to strengthen the grass quality in spring.
Manage parasites. “Either pick up manure and compost it, then spread the composted manure on your pastures in the fall, or harrow the manure that’s in the pastures, and let the pastures sit until grazing time next year,” advises Hill. “Depending on your climate, the parasites will likely either dry or freeze to death over the winter, leaving pastures healthier for your horse next spring.”
Manage mud. Take time now to improve mud-prone areas before the snow melts and spring rains begin. “Aside from being annoying, extremely muddy conditions can lead to problems, such as pastern dermatitis, which we commonly see turn into full blown cellulitis,” says Moneta. “It can also cause other skin issues and thrush.” To manage mud, plant water-loving trees and plants, overseed high-traffic areas, and spread wood chips on pathways. In those especially mud-prone areas, consider investing in a commercial pad, panel, or grid mud-management system.
Check fencing. Check and repair fencing now so your pastures are ready to go in the spring.