Successfully overwintering your horse out 24/7
Although as humans we may prefer our central heating and heavyweight duvets, the vast majority of horses are able to winter out, given the right conditions, and many are happier doing so. For horses with arthritis, those who tend to get filled legs when standing in or the chubby animals out there it can be a positive benefit, done properly. In this article we will help you and your horse thrive in the field this winter.
Shelter is essential. The increasingly wet winters we are having are hard on horses, who don’t thrive in wet, muddy conditions. Shelter can be natural or manmade. A good thick hedge is usually favoured by most horses, and will also give the horse access to twigs and leaves to pick at, which most enjoy. Manmade shelter might take the form of a simple windbreak, a pole barn providing overhead cover or a well-appointed field shelter providing protection from wind and rain. With any enclosed shelter it’s essential to make sure that horses turned out together can escape the shelter easily in the event of equine disagreements – so entrances need to be wide. This will also let in more light and encourage the horses to use the facilities, rather than hanging around outside!
Most of us are not lucky enough to have access to the sort of acreage that will allow horses to live out without supplementary feeding. The key here, as with all feeding, is roughage. The action of bacteria in the hind gut breaks down the fibre in forage, creating heat, and it’s this heat that will keep your horse warm when the temperatures plummet – so ad lib fibre is essential, be that hay, haylage, or a hay replacer. Although soaking hay in the winter is an unpleasant job it may be necessary for fatties or those suffering from respiratory problems. Unless feeding round bales or from a purpose-made feeder, always put out more piles or nets than there are horses, to minimise squabbles. Concentrate or straight feeds, where necessary, will provide the working horse with extra energy and can be used as carriers for supplements, but are much less important to the over-wintering horse than warmth-giving forage. Concentrate feed should not be fed at the expense of fibre, as evolution has shaped the horse to eat a high-fibre diet.
Every horse is an individual, but their needs are not the same as a human’s, and we shouldn’t assume they’re cold just because we are – always check, in the armpit and at the base of their ears, and bear in mind that a rugged horse that feels ‘toasty’ when he is standing will overheat when he moves about. Particularly in dry conditions, an unclipped horse is frequently better off being allowed to regulate his own temperature with a coat evolved for the purpose, and plenty of forage will keep him warm. Older and underweight horses do need a careful eye keeping on them and an extra rug when appropriate, and donkeys need protection from the rain, as their coat is not waterproof. Modern rugs are lightweight and effective, and layering them is usually not necessary, although it may make the human feel better!
Horses in work over the winter may need clipping, and will therefore also need appropriate rugging to replace the coat removed. It can be helpful to clip the lower portions of a horse that needs to lose weight, as long as there is somewhere dry where he can lie down to sleep – and the temptation to rug such horses should be resisted unless the weather is very bad, as it would defeat the object!
Mud is an inevitable reality of a British winter, but it needn’t be a deal-breaker. In fact, when horses are turned out 24/7 mud can be less of a problem than for those horses brought in at night. When horses are turned out with company and don’t expect to come into a stable they tend not to hang around at the gate or fence-walk while waiting for their owner, particularly if provided with ad lib forage. Even so, a dry area of rubber mats or hardstanding is useful as somewhere for the horse to stand out of mud, allowing legs and feet to dry out, and for feeding hay if conditions become difficult. Feeding hay from a round bale is a low-maintenance option but mud will be worse wherever horses gather and linger, so spreading hay on the drier parts of the field and encouraging the horses not to stand in one area can prevent the knee-deep mud so often seen.
As the temperature drops horses may feel less need to drink, so an eye must be kept on their intake, particularly if they are eating large amounts of dry hay. Feeding good quality forage will help create a small reservoir of fluid in the horse’s gut, to keep the horse hydrated. A flask of hot water added to a trough can encourage them to drink and if you suspect they are not drinking enough a handful of sugar beet or pieces of apple in a bucket of water will tempt most. When troughs are icing over the ice must be regularly broken and removed, to prevent immediate refreezing. A kitchen sieve will easily remove ice and keep your hands dry at the same time.
Snow and ice
While we might find snowy conditions daunting they are often perfect for horses, who are adapted to cope with extreme cold. Their coats insulate them so well that it isn’t uncommon to see them capped with unmelted snow in this kind of weather. Snow and ice can make finding food difficult, however, so it’s essential to provide a steady and generous supply of forage and to encourage them to drink at every opportunity. Batteries cope less well in the cold, though, so if you’re using electric fencing keep a close eye on the charge level and change batteries regularly. When it’s really icy, Yaktraks or similar on your feet will help you move around with confidence.
When wintering out, preparedness is the key (as any boy scout will tell you). Invest in clothes and boots that will keep you (particularly your extremities) warm and dry, and always have a flask of tea or coffee to hand; for your horse, order in plenty of forage, make sure your rugs are all weatherproof and check fencing and shelters. On a clear, frosty day when happy horses are tucking into their hay together it will all seem worth the effort!