Monday, January 6, 2014

Baby, It's Cold Outside! Cold Weather Horse Management Tips

Winter is upon us!  As a native New Yorker, I have lived through many long, cold, snowy winters with horses.  While my current home in North Carolina isn't as extreme, I still have to battle cold temperatures and occasional ice and snow.  "Cold" is relative, though.  While 10 degrees might not be cold back home in New York, that is a pretty extreme temperature in my current area.  With the cold weather here for a while, here are some of my cold weather horse-keeping tips.

Take Care of Yourself

You can't help your horses if you are sick or injured, so be sure to take care of yourself.  The very young, very old, and those with certain health issues should avoid being outside in the extreme cold.  If you must venture out into very cold weather, be sure to dress in warm layers and never skip wearing a hat and gloves.  You also still need to stay hydrated, even though you may not feel as thirsty as you do in the warm summer heat.

Hydration is Still Key  

Even though it isn't hot outside, it is still important for horses and riders to stay hydrated.  Horses need access to clean, fresh, unfrozen water.  Well-grounded trough heaters and deicers are a wonderful way to ensure that horses have unfrozen water outside.  Heated or insulated stall water buckets are also a great way to keep water unfrozen.  Make sure that your barn's electrical is up to snuff before plugging in heated water buckets and do not use extension cords with heated buckets.

If heated or insulated buckets aren't an option for you, prepare yourself to chop ice whenever the water freezes.  When the weather stays below freezing for long periods of time, you should plan to chop the ice from the troughs several times a day.  It is important to not only break up the ice, but also remove the ice chunks from the water so that the water does not refreeze as quickly.  It will also keep the water slightly less cold, which may encourage your horse to drink more.  Soaking feed adds a little bit of water intake, and every little bit helps.  Soaking hay is another great way to get water into your horse, but only do this if it is warm enough that the hay won't freeze before the horse finishes eating.

Filling water buckets with hot or warm water will help them stay unfrozen longer.  Many people are under the mistaken impression that hot water always freezes faster than cold water.  That is simply not true. My husband, an engineer and an expert in fluid dynamics, has explained this to many people:  While hot water can freeze faster than cold water under certain circumstances, it does not always freeze faster than cold water.  Hot water in a horse's water bucket or trough will not freeze faster than cold water in the same bucket, so go ahead and fill buckets with warm water if you can.

I like to give my horses electrolytes in advance of any severe weather.  If I know there will be a big cold snap Monday night, for example, I will add electrolytes to the horses' grain starting on Sunday and continue through Monday or Tuesday.  This encourages them to start drinking more ahead of the cold weather and stay hydrated through the cold snap.

If you notice a horse's water intake decreasing, there are some tricks you can use to increase water intake.  A small handful of sweet feed in half a bucket of warm water is irresistible for most horses.  It will get them to drink a few gallons of water to get to the mushy feed on the bottom.

Make Sure You Have Running Water

Frost-free hydrants are a great way to ensure you have water available during cold weather, but you must remove the hose from the hydrant to prevent it from freezing.  Make sure to remove the hose after using it so that the hydrant truly stays unfrozen.  Turn off your barn's water and drain the water out of the pipes to prevent freezing and burst pipes.  Insulate the pipe around the main water valve with insulation or blankets and never force a frozen valve to turn.  If you are unable to turn off the water and drain the pipes, then leave the faucet running at a steady trickle to prevent the pipes from freezing.  

If You Blanket, Hit the Sweet Spot

Unblanketed horses should be in good weight, hairy, and pastured with access to shelter.  Being turned out allows them to move around to stay warm, a luxury they won't have in a stall.  All pastured horses, blanketed or not, should also have access to a three-sided shed that will provide them shelter from wind, rain, and snow.  They should also have access to plenty of hay.  Eating lots of long-stem fiber from hay keeps horses warmer, promotes their overall digestive health, and helps them maintain a healthy weight through the winter.  If you cannot feed free choice hay, then be sure to feed hay several times throughout the day.

Blanketed horses also need access to shelter from the elements and plenty of hay in the cold.  In addition, you need to make sure that your horses is blanketed appropriately enough for the weather.  You don't want too light a blanket.  A blanket that is too light will flatten down the horse's hair, stripping the horse of its natural insulation, but will not be heavy enough to keep the horse warm.  You also don't want a blanket that is too heavy.  The last thing you want is a horse sweating under a blanket during a cold snap.  That will ultimately chill the horse more.  So, make sure to monitor your horse's comfort under those blankets to be sure you've hit the "sweet spot" that keeps them warm, but does not cause them to sweat.

Even if it is warmer in your barn than it is outside, remember that horses in stalls cannot move around as much to stay warm as horses outside can.  Therefore, if your horses are stalled, you must ensure that they are blanketed appropriately if necessary and have plenty of hay during very cold weather.

Shivering is NOT Okay

I have heard too many people say that it's okay if a horse is shivering because that's just how they stay warm in the cold.  Yes, shivering is the horse's body's way of warming it up when it is too cold, but make no mistake about it - Horses shiver for the exact same reason humans do: Their bodies are otherwise failing to keep them warm.  Shivering is a sign that your horse is too cold and is unable to keep himself warm.  Shivering is as uncomfortable for horses as it is for humans, and a shivering horse should be brought in out of wind, rain, and snow and covered in layers of warm coolers or blankets to warm up.  Shivering for long periods of time will also make your horse muscle sore.

Don't Add Unnecessary Stress During Weather Changes

Horses can be creatures of habit and changes in their routine can be stressful.  While a change in weather is stressful, drastically changing your horse's routine during a weather change only adds to the stress.  Soaking your horse's regular feed with a handful of bran and a serving of electrolytes is a great way to help keep horses hydrated and encourage them to drink.  Changing out your horse's regular grain ration for a pound of bran mixed in with a lot of sweet feed during a weather change, however, is likely to cause more harm than good.  Additionally, stalling a horse that is used to 24/7 turnout in a pasture with buddies and a shed can cause more problems than it prevents.

If a change in routine is inevitable, and sometimes it is, try to plan ahead.  If you know your horse that is used to being out 24/7 will need to stay in overnight due to severe weather, start bringing the horse in for short periods of time a few days in advance, increasing the length of stall time every day.  If you are worried that roads may be impassable for a while, make sure you are stocked up on hay and grain so you won't have to make sudden changes to your horses' feed.

Keep Them Moving

Even if it is too cold or too frozen to ride, try to keep your horses moving.  Turnout, even if it is limited, is essential.  If your horses are going to be confined to stalls for long periods of time due to dangerous footing in turnouts, try to hand walk them for at least 10 minutes a few times a day, even if your only option is to walk them up and down the barn aisle.  This will help keep their gut moving, prevent boredom, and prevent stocking up.

Don't Forget Your Barn Cats and Dogs

Remember to make plans for your barn's small animals during cold weather.  They, too, need to stay warm and have fresh, unfrozen water.  During extreme temps, consider confining barn cats to a well-insulated tack room or garage so they can stay warm.  If confining them is not an option, provide them with warm blankets and beds in their indoor sleeping areas so they can snuggle up to stay warm.  Small animals are safest indoors during extreme temperatures, so please bring your pets inside if you able to!  If you aren't, please make sure they have appropriate shelter, unfrozen water, and plenty of beds and blankets to keep them warm.

Common Sense is Key!

As with everything, using common sense is key to managing animals in cold weather.  Keep a close eye on your horses and other outdoor pets and monitor their feed and water intake.  Call your vet with any questions or if have any concerns about your horse's health.  As much as possible, plan ahead for severe weather and don't overexert yourself in extreme temperatures.

Stay warm!

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