The vision of horses frolicking in a fresh blanket of powdery snow brings a smile to any horse lover’s face. Devoid of bugs and unrelenting summer heat, winter can be a refreshing change for both horse and human. However, cold weather can also bring different challenges and worries. By considering the following eight points, though, you can avert many problems and enjoy your winter wonderland – worry-free.
1. Water. All life needs it to survive. While horses can subsist on ice and snow, their water intake is greatly reduced which can lead to dehydration, weight loss or impaction colic.
Frozen water buckets or tanks are not desirable and require someone to break the ice up numerous times a day. If possible, provide water warmed to 45 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 20ºC) to encourage your horse to meet his water needs. There are numerous tank or bucket warmers on the market that beat chopping ice in the freezing cold.
If you are providing warmed water and your horse is still reluctant to drink, consider adding celery seeds to his feed. A teaspoon of this seed per day often provides enough encouragement, and it doubles as a good winter digestive tonic that also assists with stiff arthritic joints in older horses.
Add a slice or two of fresh ginger to one of the water tanks. The hint of the herb will permeate the water, providing a warm and comforting drink when your horse chooses water from that source.
2. Warm winter coat. A natural coat is nature’s best insulator and a horse’s first line of defence against cold weather. If a horse is rugged or blanketed or kept in a warm barn, he will not grow an adequate length of coat to protect him against the elements. Since proper nutrition also plays a role in coat condition, ensure your current diet is up to par and that your horse also receives Omega-3 fatty acids.
Of course, if your horse has come from a warmer climate and has not yet acclimatized to the cold, it will be more difficult to stay warm and maintain comfort. In this case, wait until the following year so he has time to grow a good coat.
3. A few extra pounds. At this time of year, a little extra weight is a plus since body fat plays a vital role in insulating any equine against the cold. In his article, “Condition scoring for your horse”, Craig H. Wood from the Animal Sciences Department at the University of Kentucky suggests a body condition score of six or seven in cold to very cold climates. This will help a horse survive and provide a reservoir of energy to generate heat.
The chart below outlines the characteristics of the desired body condition scores. To help keep condition on a horse, try fenugreek seeds. They are an appetite stimulant and benefit imbalances in the respiratory tract. Add a tablespoon of fenugreek seeds to a feed once a day; however, because they are difficult to digest, steep the seeds in boiling water to soften before adding them and the water to your horse’s feed.
4. A healthy digestive system. This is your horse’s natural heat producer, so it’s important to support this system. Providing free-choice grass hay helps horses generate more metabolic energy, which in turn helps them stay warm when exposed to cold weather. Contrary to popular belief, forage generates more heat than grain.
“Research has shown that even though hay is lower in digestible energy than grains, it allows the horse to generate more body heat due to the fermentation process in the large intestinal tract,” explains Dr. Judy Marteniuk, DVM, from Missouri State University.
5. The immune system. Horses, as well as humans, are more susceptible to illness during the winter months, and like us, they too can benefit from a little prevention. Garlic is a valuable immune boosting herb and a tablespoon every second day is enough to strengthen the body’s defences through the colder months.
Echinacea root brewed into a decoction is often good to start your horses on, especially if he is new to a cold environment or has a history of respiratory complaints. If you wish to use Echinacea to build up resistance to disease, it is important you obtain the dried root of the plant from a reliable source as this part of the plant has a longer efficacy in the body. If you are using the leaf, for maximum effectiveness, it is best used when you first notice infection and for a duration of three to four weeks.
6. Shelter, don’t smother. Do not underestimate the benefits of a natural windbreak or simple shelter. Build your protection so your horse can come and go freely, having the choice to take refuge if the weather becomes extreme.
If you have a closed barn, allow for plenty of ventilation without drafts, where your horse can move around and remain dry. Manure and urine-soaked bedding needs to be removed daily from enclosed spaces to avoid the build up of ammonia concentrates. According to veterinarian Dr. Karen Hayes, some ammonia levels in stalls can reach 450ppm. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) considers 50ppm of ammonia concentrates to be harmful to humans.
In a closed environment, any equine appreciates the scent of aromatherapy. Essential oils help cheer up the barn-kept horse and also act as negative ion generators to inhibit the spread of airborne pathogens. Simply waft an uncapped bottle of grapefruit essential oil, sometimes referred to as “brain sunshine”, under your horse’s nose to lift his spirits. Or try eucalyptus and bergamot, which are uplifting as well as antiviral – to help build your horse’s resistance to ‘cold’ viruses.
7. Special care when exercising. When working horses in cold weather, warm them up slowly before asking for serious work. It is also a benefit to give a good brisk massage to warm you both up before even saddling. Sweeping effleurage and circular frictions will generate heat and warm up the muscles.
Most importantly, when you are finished and unsaddled, dry your equine partner off. Your horse needs to be cooled down thoroughly and brushed so the fluffy hair is able to trap air and keep him warm. Flat, wet hair clings to the body and allows body heat to escape.
8. A treatment plan for common ailments. During the colder months, respiratory tract infections tend to be an issue. Keep herbs such as elder, elecampane, mullein, and yarrow on hand in case your horse needs this sort of support.
• Elder flowers contain tannins and mucilage which are very soothing to irritated mucosal tissue.
• Elecampane should be considered if your horse if afflicted with a cough as it soothes the respiratory tract and helps to eliminate congestion from the lungs.
• Mullein is more for the wet coughs or when your horse may be sore and irritated in the respiratory tract.
• Yarrow helps to dilate the peripheral blood vessels that become contracted in the cold and assists the body in maintaining a healthy warmth. It also addresses mild fevers or circulatory congestion.
All these herbs can be steeped into a tea mixture and added to feed. If combining two or three herbs, use ½ to 1 cup of mixed herbs daily for horses on the mend or twice daily for horses that need that little extra support.
Simplicity is key to herbal treatments for horses. Usually it takes a synergistic combination of only three or four herbs in a daily regimen to help your horse overcome most of the obstacles the cold weather creates within the body.
So, as the snow begins to fly and the temperatures creep toward freezing, don’t worry. Just keep in mind the eight considerations for cold weather health and enjoy your winter wonderland. Remember, the bugs and heat are just around the corner.