[January 7, 2014; Kennett Square, PA] – With temperatures dropping to single digits this week, Michelle D. Harris, VMD, DACVIM, lecturer in the Section of Emergency and Critical Care at Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center, offers the following tips to keep horses healthy and safe during the cold days of winter.
1. More Calories: People joke about “bulking up for winter,” but for horses that live outside, increasing calories is a very real need because it takes more calories to keep warm. High-quality hay is the foundation of any healthy diet, and boosting calories through an increase of the hay ration is a healthier option than increasing the grain ration. Older horses that are unable to consume their calories from hay due to dental disease might need another calorie source, such as corn oil. Horse owners should consult with a veterinarian about dietary management during the cold winter months.
2. Water, Not Ice: Horses need abundant, fresh water, even when it is cold outside. Owners should check several times daily to make sure that the water source is not frozen. There are numerous types of heating units, made specifically for this purpose, to ensure that your horse has fresh, unfrozen water available at all times.
3. Fresh Air: Keeping your horse in a warm, tightly shut barn is not necessarily a good thing. A closed-up barn increases your horse’s exposure to airborne dust and allergens. A well-ventilated barn, even if it means a drop of a few degrees in temperature, will keep the air fresher and healthier for your horse. If your horse has a non-infectious respiratory disease such as Recurrent Airway Obstruction ("Heaves") or Inflammatory Airway Disease, it is particularly unhealthy for the horse to be inside the barn since exposure to high levels of particles in the air can trigger a flare-up of respiratory signs. Invest in a warm, weatherproof blanket and leave a horse with airway disease turned out, with access to a run-in shed for shelter.
4. Check Under Blankets: Some horses that live outside year-round have their blanket on all winter. While blanketing is necessary to keep your horse warm, it can sometimes hide things lurking beneath. The same can be true for horses and ponies that are not blanketed, but grow a very thick hair coat. Make sure to bring the horse in and remove the blanket at least once weekly so that you can check for any new lumps, bumps, or changes in body condition. Remember that a long hair coat can hide a lot and you need to actually touch your horse to get an idea of condition. A good grooming session will provide the opportunity to check the horse thoroughly, and provide some valuable bonding time when the weather is not conducive to riding.
5. Blanket Consistently: Keep in mind that blanket management can impact the growth of your horse’s coat. Blanketing a horse will encourage less growth of the hair coat, so if you are going to blanket, be consistent.