We often joke here in Maine that there are two seasons: “Winter” and “Preparing for Winter.” You also may include the entire month of rain that seems to occur in both Spring and Fall creating the always popular “Mud Season.” On the farm Winter means survival mode not only for us, but for the animals as well. When the temperatures dip well below freezing and stay there for several months it becomes even more crucial to keep a close eye on our equines and notice any changes in behavior or health.
There are several things to consider going into the winter months that will help to keep our equine happy and healthy…
Water: No matter what time of year it is, one of the most important equine provisions is water. In the winter this can become a challenge all its own. If you are fortunate enough to have electricity running to your barn or paddocks, then a stock tank heater or heated buckets will provide a constant source of thawed water. When using stock tank heaters remember to read the instructions for installation as well as the operating details, some are designed for plastic stock tanks, while others are not. Another thing to consider when using a tank heater is grounding the water. Though it is not common, electrocution can occur from water heaters. A simple grounding rod with a copper wire run into the water will eliminate this risk. If you do not have electricity you can use insulated bucket holders to keep your horse’s water from freezing too quickly or consider using a solar powered tank heater. No matter what method you choose, plan to check on your horse’s water source at least 2-3 times daily to make sure they have a constant supply of fresh water.
Hay: The average 1000-pound horse will consume 1 bale of hay per day, when pasture is not available. This means that here in New England when pasture dies back or is covered with snow for 5 months of the year, the average horse will have consumed at least 150 bales of hay during winter alone. Forage consumption is an especially important part of the horse’s digestive system, and having almost constant access to hay can decrease the risk of ulcers and colic. Before winter sets in make sure that you have enough hay for the number of horses you have, and that you have a storage area that is dry and dark. If your horse tends to act like a vacuum when it comes to his hay, then maybe consider a slow feed hay net, or break his daily hay ration into several feedings.
Fencing and Turnout: Once there is snow cover, we are unable to see any dangers that may lay beneath. Before winter strikes it is important to walk all fence lines, pastures, and paddocks and repair or clean up any hazards that may have formed. Another thing to watch out for is low lying areas where water tends to pool. These areas of poor drainage will become treacherous once temperatures dip below freezing. If you have any turnout space that contains a natural water source like a pond, these areas should be closed off to avoid the risk of drowning once a layer of ice forms.
Daily Health Checks: Checking your horse thoroughly everyday is a good practice to have, and even more important during the winter months. Remove your horse’s blanket, check for injuries, and make note of behavioral changes on a daily basis. We also recommend taking the horse’s temperature and checking the horse’s weight at least once weekly. This will allow you to notice any significant changes that could indicate a necessary change in diet, or early signs of illness.
Winter can be a beautiful time of year as long as we are ready for it. It is up to us to make sure our horses have plenty of feed, water, and a safe space to live no matter how cold it gets. We wish you all the best of luck this winter…Stay healthy and stay warm!