Horse | Don't Forget Your Best Friend, Your Horse, as Winter Comes

By Margaret Winsryg, Ph.D.

We just had a great 4 months working with our horses, preparing, training, and polishing them for the summer's activities of showing, 3-day event, trail riding, endurance riding and 4-H activities. Now as winter comes what do we do with our horses? I see many horses put on the back burner until next spring when the weather gets better. Well, get out your insulated coveralls or find an indoor arena and keep up with at least some of the hard work you did this summer. Most horses and riders spend hours on training for one event or the other and kids ride their hearts out for the summer, so why do we let all that go to waste in the winter? Our horses forget what we taught them and we forget as well. So some answers to this winter riding slump:

  1. Try to longe your horse once or twice a week. You will find yourself brushing, cleaning feet and detecting possible injury as well just because you took the time to spend with your horse.
  2. If longeing is not possible and you, like me, have many horses, ride one and pony the second. Where time is limited, this works great.
  3. If you have a pasture or one close by, work your horse in the pasture when weather permits. Do remember you can not work your horse as hard when you only ride once in a while, as you did in the summer. He is not in the same shape and stamina capacity as he was when you were riding more during the summer. Be sure to cool the horse down completely so there is no chance of catching pneumonia, cold or colic and don’t feed or water your horse an hour before or an hour after riding.
  4. Ask around and sees which stable allows outside riders to use their facility, for a fee or otherwise. There are plenty of good stables, farms and neighbors, you just need to ask.

With winter coming make sure you have a safe, clean and draft-free place for your horse to get out of the wind. You do not need an enclosed barn necessarily; horses do very well outdoors and in fact if the ventilation in your barn is poor, they could actually do better outside. They do need at least a three-sided shelter that will protect them from the prevailing winds. Make sure there is some sort of pack for them to lie on whether it is straw, shaving or pads. It is very hard on your horse to lie on the cold ground. It makes it more difficult to keep warm. Also remember the foals. They do not have the fat mass horses do to use for heat retention and this decreases the amount of heat they can retain to keep warm. Foals are also still growing so much of their energy demands are being diverted for growth and less is available to be used to convert energy into heat for warmth. They may start to shiver to keep warm and this is not in itself a bad sign. But excessive shivering can expend much energy and may result in weight loss. This could also be a concern with your thin horses or older animals.

Last but not least, during winter make sure you have switched from your summer ration to your winter ration. Summer rations are higher in grains and lower in hays (but never lower roughages less than 1% of the horse's body weight) because the heat produced in the hind gut is lower with higher grain rations. For winter feed more hays and fewer grains to get more heat of fermentation in the hind gut. This is a good time to make sure the grain you are feeding is the most dense and palatable grain possible. Look for a high-fat product of good quality fat, (vegetable fat), because each unit of fat contains twice as much energy as carbohydrates (oats, barley, corn). This makes fat a useful and practical way to meet increased energy demands without increasing the concentrate portion of the diet dramatically. Fats are digested by the horse well and in fact are utilized about 30% more efficiently than energy derived from grain and hay. Increased dietary fat intake can increase glycogen stores in muscle, which in turn means more energy available to your horse. More bang for your buck, you could say.

So remember your horse this winter. Exercise, check for injuries, keep out of the weather and feed them accordingly, and they will remember you when you need them.