Winter poses unique challenges for horse owners as they navigate plummeting temperatures and harsh weather conditions. In this comprehensive guide, we will share invaluable winter horse care tips from veterinarian, Dr. Lisa Casinella, DVM.

Whether you're an experienced equestrian or a new horse owner, these practical tips will ensure the well-being and health of your equine companions during the coldest months. From emergency preparedness and shelter management to nutrition and exercise, let's dive into the best practices for keeping your horses thriving even in the harshest of winters.

1. Preparing for Winter Emergencies


Dr. Casinella emphasizes the importance of being prepared for emergencies, especially in remote areas and difficult weather conditions. She advises assembling an emergency kit that includes essentials such as bandage material, eye medication, wound care products, and anti-inflammatories. Consult your veterinarian to determine if oral antibiotics and tranquilizers should be included.

"Everybody should have hoof equipment. Just some basic stuff. You don't have to have what I have, but just enough that you could pull a shoe off appropriately," Dr. Casinella said.

2. Shelter and Turnout


When it comes to providing shelter for horses during winter, a balance must be struck between protection and natural behavior. Dr. Casinella highlights the significance of ensuring horses have access to unfrozen water, preferably warm, and ample hay. This not only aids in maintaining their body temperature but also promotes overall health. The shelter should offer protection from the elements while allowing the horses to engage in natural behaviors.

3. Winter Nutrition: Hay > Concentrates

three horses eat from a bale of hay in the pasture


Proper nutrition in winter plays a pivotal role in the well-being of horses, especially as pasture quality diminishes.

"Hay is the cornerstone of a horse's diet," emphasizes Dr. Casinella.

This insight underscores the preference for high-quality hay over increased concentrates. Horses generate body heat through the digestion of fiber, primarily found in hay, making it a crucial component of their winter diet.

To ensure your horse's dietary needs are adequately met, it is important to have your hay tested to understand its nutritional content. A lot of the vets have tools to core out a piece of hay that you can send in to get tested. You can also ask your county extension office for help with this. Most of the major feed companies offer hay testing and analysis, and they will help you develop an overall feeding program for your horse based on their physical condition, circumstances, and the hay available.

Additionally, specific regional deficiencies, such as low selenium or vitamin E, may require targeted supplementation. If your horse struggles to maintain weight during winter, it may be because they're grazing less or they're losing muscle. Work with your vet to ensure nothing more is going on, and then adjust your feed schedule accordingly (again, a nutritionist can help). Hay is always preferred, but if you determine that your horse needs 15 pounds of grain per day, try to break that up into several meals rather than just a morning and evening meal. There are timed feeders that can help if necessary.

4. Blanketing Strategies

A chestnut horse with a big blaze stands behind a fence in his pasture wearing a green blanket in winter


The decision to blanket horses during winter demands careful consideration. Dr. Casinella offers clear guidance on when to adjust the number of blankets. If horses are cold and shaking, they need an additional blanket. However, if they are sweating under the blanket, adjustments should be made accordingly. Factors such as coat thickness, age, health status, and activity level should be taken into account to determine the appropriate type and number of blankets for each horse.

"Horses are horses and they have survived hundreds of thousands of years without humans. We try to help them along and do a little bit better, but they have survived without us in the cold and in the heat, and for the most part they're going to be okay. Just don't overthink it, and ask your vet if you're stressing out."

5. The Importance of Ventilation:


While it may be tempting to over-seal barns to keep horses warm during winter, Dr. Casinella warns against this common mistake. "We know that horses need good air quality," she advises. Proper ventilation is critical in preventing respiratory problems, even in the coldest months. It is essential to ensure there is a constant flow of fresh air in the barn, striking a balance between warmth and air quality.

"Unless the conditions are extreme, such as during a blizzard or with 80 mile per hour winds or -50 degrees temperatures, the windows should stay open and the airflow should be good, period."

6. Ensure Regular Movement

A bay horse with a blaze stands in a paddock during winter


Maintaining a regular movement routine for horses during winter is essential for their physical and mental well-being. Whenever possible, they should be turned out with access to the basics: fresh water supply that is easily accessible, hay, and their regular feed. Exercise not only helps maintain physical health but also stimulates mental engagement, even when outdoor activity may be limited due to extreme weather.

7. Maintain Routine and Consistency


Dr. Casinella stresses the importance of maintaining a stable routine, particularly for older horses. Changing their environment abruptly can cause unnecessary stress. She recommends keeping the horse's environment as consistent as possible, altering it only when extremely harsh weather conditions warrant special considerations. For older horses, especially, maintaining their routine helps promote a sense of stability and comfort during the challenging winter months.

Conclusion


Dr. Casinella's expert advice provides a valuable roadmap for navigating the challenges of winter horse care. Her emphasis on preparedness, proper nutrition, and understanding each horse's individual needs serves as a guiding principle. Remember to have confidence in your care routine, seek veterinary advice when unsure, and always prioritize the well-being and warmth of your equine companions. By implementing these tips, you can ensure your horses remain happy, healthy, and content during even the coldest of winters.

Stay warm and enjoy the season with your equine friends!

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