Horse Health

Winter Horse Health Concerns

Each season brings with it its own set of challenges, and winter is no different. Becca Davis, DVM, an associate veterinarian with Scenic City Veterinary Services in Dayton, Tennessee, weighs in on six common winter health issues and the best ways to successfully navigate them.

Availability of water

Becca Davis, DVM, weighs in on six common winter horse health concerns and the best ways to successfully navigate them.

As important as maintaining a clean, fresh water source is during the summer months, so too are preparations that support our horses’ consumption of water during the colder winter season. Without it, horses are more likely to experience colic. Dr. Davis says that depending upon the part of the country you live in, the lush grass of summer has a significant amount of moisture. However, she says, in the winter, those grasses dry up, and the horses are not getting as much water from them as they did before.

“If they don’t have enough moisture to lubricate their gut, they can get colic,” Davis says. “It can increase their risk of impaction because their feces are getting harder.”

To encourage water intake, Davis advises keeping water at a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If water temperature alone is not inspiring your horses to drink, she says that water consumption can be further encouraged by mixing flavor additives, such as peppermint, into their water. Furthermore, she says, the winter season is not the time to remove the availability of a free-choice mineral block. As horses consume these minerals, just as they do during the warmer months of the year, they have an increased likelihood of drinking more water.

Still, for additional moisture, you may find that you need to further supplement their water consumption. For this, Davis advises wetting their hay.

Forage, forage, forage

“Forage is their best source of energy,” Davis says. “Since horses are going to be expending
more energy trying to keep themselves warm in the wintertime, a lot of times we encourage people to increase their forage, especially if it is really cold outside.”

She says that horses with a winter coat typically do not expend as much energy as those that have been clipped. But, especially during those early first freezes, increasing your horses’ forage consumption can help them stay warm and keep their energy supply intact so they do not lose weight or become immunocompromised.

Older horses with dental issues affecting their ability to chew are of special concern, and it may be more difficult to increase their forage intake. For these horses, Davis recommends adding vegetable oil to their diet.

“These have a lot of energy supply and, typically, horses like them,” Davis says. While she says all horses do not need grain, specially formulated senior feeds can also benefit older horses that have difficulty consuming hay.

Shelter

Davis explains that a good way for horse owners to think about shelter is that they are a way for their animals, if they so choose, to get out of the elements, adding that they need not be elaborate. Good shelter options, she says, include stands of trees, three-sided run-in sheds or even a stall in a well-ventilated barn.

Hoof care

With fluctuations in the weather, the winter season can bring an increased risk of thrush or abscesses.

“Freezing temperatures can make the ground hard,” Davis says. “So, you may see an increase in sole bruises from walking on a different type of terrain [than they have become accustomed to during the previous season].”

Becca Davis, DVM, weighs in on six common winter horse health concerns and the best ways to successfully navigate them.

To keep your horses on track, Davis advises regularly picking your horses’ hooves out and maintaining regularly scheduled visits with your farrier.

Increased respiratory risk

Just as in other seasons, Davis says that those horses who spend more time indoors can fall victim to increased dust in their environment. But she typically sees a spike in respiratory issues during the winter months when more horses are being brought inside due to inclement weather. To mitigate the risk, she advises dampening their feed and feeding them soaked hay from the ground.

Plentiful mud

The presence of mud, which can be especially plentiful during the winter months, brings with it yet another set of management challenges. Davis explains that horses standing in mud have an increased risk of developing thrush and injuries resulting from slipping and sliding in it. To help alleviate the risk of injury, she advises investigating your options for adding a substrate for added traction and moisture absorption to those areas of your property where you frequently observe it. She says, if possible, rotating feeding areas, such as around hay rings and moving around water troughs, can also be beneficial.

Despite the additional concerns, rather than becoming a drudgery, expending a little extra effort during the wintertime can make it just another season to enjoy time with your horses.

To blanket or not?

Blankets, Davis says, are a per-person preference.

“The idea behind blanketing is good,” Davis says. “It keeps them warmer, which in turn, is going to keep them from using as much energy keeping their body condition in check.”

Becca Davis, DVM, weighs in on six common winter horse health concerns and the best ways to successfully navigate them.

But not every horse needs a blanket. While certain factors such as your horse’s age, weight and whether their winter coat is intact, should influence your blanketing decisions, most healthy horses who do not fit into one of the aforementioned categories do not require one.

Mashes

While opinions differ on whether mashes benefit your horse, many owners do favor providing them, especially during the winter months, as a method to increase water intake and temporarily provide a boost of warmth.

“I have nothing against mashes,” Davis says. “I think they are a really good way to increase water intake.”

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