As winter approaches, the prospect of managing our horses during months of poor weather and the shorter days of winter make us all long for the warmer days of spring. The drop in temperature, muddy paddocks, the reduced availability of forage and the lack of daylight hours for riding all carry their challenges.

The importance of forage

Horses are remarkably resilient to wintry weather, providing they have a plentiful source of forage and some shelter from the elements. As hindgut fermenters, if provided with a good supply of long stem forage, which can be grass, hay or haylage, then heat is produced which will help to keep their body warm. Forages are better at producing heat via fermentation than hard feeds such as mixes and compound feeds, so resist the temptation to increase these too much without a corresponding increase in work. If possible, try to provide several sources of forage, placed in different areas of the paddock to reduce the risk of injury to individuals competing for food  and to encourage movement.

Access to clean water

Ad lib access to clean water is also important as water intake can increase in winter when horses eat forage containing a lower water content than summer grass. It is important to monitor how much water your horse is drinking during periods of chilly weather and to ensure that when the temperature dips, ice on water troughs and buckets is broken at least daily. If your horse is not keen on drinking very cold water, try adding some hot water to the bucket to raise the temperature to lukewarm. Horses that do not drink sufficient water may be in danger of dehydration and will be at greater risk of impaction colic.

To rug or not to rug?

The question of whether to rug also provokes much debate at this time of year. Healthy horses that are unclipped are, in most cases, unlikely to require or benefit from a rug. Their coats are highly effective at keeping them both warm and dry, and this permits the horse to better regulate its body temperature, and to follow the annual cycle of weight loss and weight gain with the seasons. Horses and ponies that have a high body condition score when spring arrives will be at risk of laminitis – which can be exceedingly difficult to manage, and very painful for the animal.  

Clipped out horses that are in work do require some additional protection from cold and wet weather – but remember that horses have a comparatively low surface area to weight ratio, which also helps them to retain heat better than us. Rugging should be appropriate to the weather conditions, and it is better for a horse to be slightly cooler than too hot from being over-rugged.

Stabled horses

When considering whether to stable or not, we must remember that horses have evolved to be constantly on the move and to be grazing for 16-18 hours a day in their natural environment. Whilst some horses seem positively to enjoy coming into the stable, a majority that have regular turn out will benefit from reduced dust, increased movement and comparative freedom to express their normal behaviours compared to stabled horses, all of which are likely to result in reduced veterinary care costs!

If your horse is stabled overnight, don’t be alarmed if you find in the mornings that their legs have become moderately filled. Horses use a muscle pump action to move blood and fluid out of their limbs and back into their body, and this muscle pump is restricted in its action when horses stand in a stable for extended periods of time. In most of these cases, the fluid is should dissipate when the horse is given a short walk.

Mud fever

Pastern dermatitis, or mud fever, is the bane of many horse owners’ lives during winter. Mud fever typically occurs when the skin is persistently subjected to wet conditions  and loses its integrity, permitting surface dwelling bacteria to enter the upper layers of the skin and cause a dermatitis.

The horse should be removed immediately from muddy conditions and the area affected should be dried and cleaned, but avoid washing with antiseptics such as Hibiscrub which can be detrimental. Precise manage will vary with each case, so please contact us for bespoke advice and treatment.

Following recent changes to RCVS regulations, horses that may require antibiotic treatment, be it topical or systemic, will require an examination by a vet. Where possible and appropriate, we will  try to recommend treatments that don’t  require antibiotics, as we join our colleagues across the veterinary and medical professions in trying to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance.

Exercising your horse

Finally, when exercising your horse during the winter months, it is particularly important to ensure that they are  warmed up well and cooled down appropriately to protect their musculoskeletal system. Don’t neglect to wash them off well if they are sweaty or muddy – this will significantly reduce the risk of skin infections.

We’re here to help!

Remember that if you have any concerns about your horse or pony’s health, our team is here to help and support, so please don’t hesitate to contact us.