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Horse Health Care Risks in Winter


By Malorie Paine
Many people are unaware of the extra health risks the winter months bring upon horses. Dr. John English, veterinarian at the Animal Care Hospital of Lauderdale, Tennessee says there are several things that can be done throughout the winter to keep your animal safe. Some general things are: make sure the horse’s water bucket does not have ice covering the supply; keep stalls clean and well ventilated; maintain a regular exercise routine, and be watchful of signs of illness.

Colic and dehydration are two of the most common health issues seen during the winter because horses may drink less water in the colder weather. If there is a layer of ice covering the water supply, it reduces the available water supply to horses, leads to dehydration,  and could cause their body temperature to become unregulated.  There is a simple fix to ice in a bucket: simply break the ice into smaller pieces and remove.  

Using electric waterers and heaters is a popular thing among horse owners. They are an easy way to make sure the water does not freeze so that the horse will have an adequate water supply.  “[Water heaters are] expensive, but there really aren’t too many risks involved. They are usually grounded, so I don’t see too many issues in using them,” said English.

There are some other things that can be done in order to increase the needed water supply. “We often see people set out salt and mineral blocks. As the horses use these, their need for water is increased,” said English.

Some horse owners believe that keeping horses inside a barn during the winter months will prevent them from becoming cold and to remain free of illness. However, this is not necessarily the case. If a horse is kept in an area that is not well ventilated, disease can attack the animal much easier. Poor airflow and poor air quality can lead to respiratory problems. “In our office, [during the winter months] we see many horses with respiratory infections as well as colds and viral problems which can quickly be spread throughout a barn,” said English.

Like people, horses require exercise throughout the year, not just in prime seasons such as late spring, summer or fall. Horses require exercise during the stringent winter months, too. Exercise will keep the horses in shape and better suited to fight off disease and illness. Though sometimes weather conditions prevent daily riding, horses still should be turned out daily to prevent any stiffness in their muscles that may occur while being stalled. 

Increasing feed during the winter months is another concern among many horse owners. With the cold weather horses burn more calories to keep warm and this may cause them to drop weight more quickly than in the warmer months. Because horses are burning calories more rapidly, they do require more feed.

“Older horses may require more hay and supplements than any other time throughout the year,” said English. Dr. English recommends increasing the feed about 20% beyond what normal conditions would call for.  If the amount of feed is increased, make sure the horse is receiving an adequate amount of exercise so they do not become overfed and are able to remain healthy.

Concerns of horses becoming dirty throughout the winter months may lead to desires to bathe them. This is not advised. People would not jump in an outdoor pool during the winter months and, likewise, should not hose down their horses outdoors. If an indoor barn is available in which to bathe the horse, then a bath may be acceptable. However, if the bath will take place outdoors, then perhaps those plans should be re-thought. When a horse is bathed with cool water, the body temperature is lowered. With temperatures outside being lower as well, this could potentially lead to health problems such as pneumonia and respiratory infections.

In order for your horse to endure the hardest months with ease, Dr. English recommends, “Mostly watching feed; being careful not to overfeed; making sure they are drinking enough water; and making sure they have enough heat and are kept warm because they can get frost bitten around the ears and tail.”

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