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Veterinary Notes from UTCVM


By Carla Sommardahl, DVM, PhD, DACVM

Winter care

What special needs do horses have during winter months?

Water is the most important thing to monitor during cold weather to make sure horses have access and are drinking the water.  Due to the increase in consumption of dry feed, horses that do not drink enough water are at a higher risk of impaction or colic. Water should be maintained at a temperature between 45-65° F and ice should be removed daily.  If water heaters are used, make sure they are correctly installed to prevent electrical shock. 

How does one care for older horses (or other horses) who may tend to lose weight as pastures wane? 

Horses should be offered 1.5-2% of their body weight in forage daily (1000 lb horse will need 15-20 lbs of hay per day) along with a forage ration balancer to provide needed vitamins and minerals that the hay may not be providing. In extreme conditions, feed consumption can be raised up to 25% more than maintenance. Good quality hay produces heat as it is digested, much more so than concentrate. However, concentrate can be used as a supplement for horses that have trouble maintaining their body condition or for those who do not have adequate access to shelter.  Added fat supplements are also a way to increase calories without having to increase the amount of concentrate.  Any changes in concentrate rations must be done gradually to prevent intestinal upset which can lead to health problems.   

Do you have any recommendations for winter pasture, such rye grass, fescue, or other green winter crops? 

Here is a website with information about winter forages. I recommend that horse owners contact their county extension agent for advice on specifics for their area.

Should horse owners feed alfalfa cubes in winter? What kinds of hay are preferred? Any preferences for grains/ feeds? 
Alfalfa hay and alfalfa cubes are fine as part of the diet but add this gradually.  Alfalfa cubes can be very dry and can cause choke, so soaking in water prior to feeding is often a good idea.  No specific recommendations for hay type, but should be good quality to provide the calories and nutrients that are needed.  Make any changes in the hay gradually if changing to something different than what the horse has been eating, especially if switching to a shorter stem length such as Bermuda grass hay.  No preferences for concentrates and there are a lot of good feeds on the market that are all comparable. 

Are there particular illnesses/injuries the veterinarians see in winter?

Impaction colics are more common in the winter due to decreased water consumption and increase in dry feed such as hay.  If the horses are inside more, there may be an increase in respiratory irritants leading to airway inflammation or RAO.  Make sure their is good ventilation in closed barns.

Frozen ground can be dangerous for horses too for falling and injuring themselves just like humans.  Exercise is important, so make sure where they are turned out or exercised is safe.

Dermatophilus infections (Rain rot or scald) in the skin from wet skin under a winter coat is common, so frequent inspection of their legs and back which are common areas that we see this type of skin infection is recommended.

Stallion ownership

Stallion housing can vary greatly depending on the facility constraints and differences in behavior between stallions.  Generally, stallions should be housed in separate facilities from mares, especially during the breeding season.  They can be stalled next to geldings or other stallions, but require separate turnout in most circumstances.  Separate housing also decreases the chance of contracting infectious diseases brought to the farm from horses that routinely travel off farm.  Stalls should be of strong construction and walls to adjoining stalls should be solid to barn eve heights of 8-10 feet minimum. The stall front should be solid in height of 4-5 feet from the floor with metal bars or study wire mesh extending above to the top of the stall front.  Turnouts should be fenced with sturdy construction and a minimum fence height recommendation of 6 feet or higher to decrease the risk of stallions challenging the enclosure.  Double fencing turnouts that border or contact other horse areas is also recommended, so stallions have limited physical access to surrounding horses.

Nutritional needs of stallions will be greater during the breeding season because most will increase their exercise voluntarily such as pacing or walking the fences.

Information provided by:

Carla Sommardahl, DVM, PhD, DACVIM
Clinical Associate Professor and Section Head
Large Animal Medicine
University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center

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