Maryland’s winter can be the roll of a dice. We’ve seen days in the low fifties swiftly drop below freezing overnight or a day later. With the recent blizzard and snowfall it seems that this year’s winter may have had a slow start, but clearly isn’t over. The heavy snow and ice conditions we’ve been experiencing only increase the difficulty in maintaining your horse’s health. These are challenges we face managing our own herd. Here are a few tips we’ve learned to ensure that all of our horses remain healthy during the winter.
Nutrition must be a priority in winter. Horses need to consume a steady diet in order to maintain their weight and body heat to withstand the cold. Remember, fiber is your horse’s best friend. Grass and/or hay will allow the proper digestion process that will heat your horse internally. Another forage option particularly high in calories is alfalfa; there are also grass-alfalfa mixes you can buy. Be sure to check in with your veterinarian to see if your horse might fare better with a specific food arrangement.
The amount of appropriate feed in winter greatly depends on the individual horse. Ponies and small breeds don’t require the same amount as larger horses, but all horses need more food to stave off the cold. A horse of 1,000 pounds typically eats 20 pounds of hay per day; when severe cold sets in it becomes appropriate to add 5-10 pounds of additional hay. In order to let none of that hay go to waste, you may want to invest in a large bucket or trough so that the feed doesn’t get sullied by mud and snow. Many horses grow thicker fur in winter so be sure to physically check for signs that they eating properly.
A horse’s dense fur coat is the first defense they have against Maryland wind, snow, ice, and rain. Horses will naturally develop a winter coat 2-3 times (maybe more) thicker than their summer coat. However, some horses maintain a short coat year round. With or without a winter coat, you might want to invest in horse blankets to help shield your horses from the elements. If your horse is continually outside during bitter conditions, you can purchase waterproof blankets for the outdoors and an indoor blanket for when they are in the stable. If the horse’s quarters are well insulated though, you’ll probably just need the outdoor blanket. Always make sure your horse is dry and thoroughly brushed before applying the blanket. If snow remains in their coat it could freeze overnight and make them sick. Mud can also cause skin irritation which could lead to infection, so be mindful in your grooming. When the temperatures fluctuate, use your judgment when a blanket is needed (if at all). If temperatures swing high again, take the blanket off. If your horse sweats and the temperatures drop back down again at night, this will increase risk of hypothermia and your hard work will be for naught!
This year’s snow and ice returned with a vengeance. A lot of it’s still here! Where it isn’t, mud and slush remains. Of course, this is all on the land we keep our horses on. Even in winter conditions, it’s crucial that you turn your horses out. This not only keeps them in shape but is important psychologically. If you own more than one horse, you must encourage regular herd interaction while they have outside time.
In addition to the cold itself, the biggest threat to your horse in winter is how the elements will affect the hooves. Be mindful of icy sections in your pasture as horses could slip and injure themselves. You may want to clear or rope off this section of your field. More specifically, ice has been known to get wedged under the hoof and even puncture the frog (a vein in the hoof), causing pain and discomfort that could lead to a horse becoming unbalanced and injured. Mud can also freeze and produce similar results. You must be diligent in picking each of your horse’s hooves to ensure that they are clean: this will minimize any risk of infection or mechanical instability.
These are just a few things to keep in mind. Happy On Hooves encourages you to engage in further research to ensure your horse will be healthy during the winter months. Our team is also eager to respond to any questions you might have. Please post your questions in the comments section and we will respond! If there is any other advice or info you’d like to share, we encourage you to post that as well!