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Winter Management

Autumn is here and winter is rapidly approaching so do we need to take account of the seasonal changes in the management of our horses? As always the answer is never straightforward because we all do different things with our horses and some horses such as hunters only work hard in the winter months, others may now only be exercised at weekends.

If you have turnout for your horse do remember that sycamore and other acer trees shed toxic leaves at this time of year. Leaves, seeds and seedlings are all highly toxic and cause the often fatal atypical myopathy. Affected horses become very stiff and lethargic and early signs may mimic colic. If not treated as an emergency the horse will collapse and die. The survival rate is less than 30% so fencing off areas around sycamore trees is particularly important where grass is short and horses are inclined to graze anything available.

Reduced daylight hours, wet or icy weather all influence how much we are able to enjoy our horses. The weather conditions may reduce or stop all turnout so horses generally have less exercise. When activity levels are reduced we need to think about how we feed our horses. It is unlikely that you will need to alter what you feed if your horse is still in work but the ratio of bulky roughage to concentrates might need adjusting. As trickle feeders the horse’s intestines expect a continuous input of bulky fibre. If your horse has a dust allergy you may need to feed haylage or its equivalent but straight hay is always safer if you are not able to exercise as much as you do in the summer months. It is my experience that many horses become very excitable when fed bagged forage so hay avoids that risk. If you are concerned about your horse’s weight, soaking hay will reduce the amount of soluble carbohydrates and reduce the risk of weight gain as well as reducing the risks of dust in the stable.

Many owners only feed a concentrated feed twice a day which is fine if the horse has access to ad lib hay but it is important to feed only small meals if exercise opportunities are reduced so you might be better to feed the same quantity of food but divided into 3 or more separate meals.

If your horse is only taking light exercise, hay may be all that is necessary. Your horse is much less likely to suffer digestive tract disorders if it is fed a hay only diet and it will be less expensive for you.

A diet of dry feedstuffs, hay or concentrates, does mean that water intake is crucial and I have mentioned this topic in the past. Dehydration can be a significant cause of colic and during the colder months it is quite common for a horse to drink less because the low temperature of the water discourages drinking. The answer is to add hot or warm water to the bucket to raise the temperature each morning. A horse of average size and weight should drink 30 to 35 litres of water each day and it is always a good idea to know what the volume of the water bucket is so you can calculate intake.

Horses fed a bulky diet will usually produce more droppings and it is important to be alert to any change in the dropping count and particularly their consistency. A change in habit might be the first sign of impending problems.

It is never a good idea to feed parasites during the winter so parasite control should also be part of winter management. Bot larvae will have completed their migration to the stomach by December and although a small number have no effect on the horses health it is always better to eliminate them. I have mentioned in earlier blogs that any deworming treatment should be preceded by a faecal egg count but this not absolutely necessary for routine winter deworming. Egg output usually drops during the winter months so a count might be misleading. It is possible to confirm the presence of tapeworms with either the new saliva test or a blood test but there is no test for bots so it is reasonable to assume they are present. The preferred treatment is a combination of moxidectin and praziquantel which will eliminate tapeworms, roundworms and bots all in one treatment.

I see many horses wearing winter rugs which do not keep the horse warm enough. A cold horse will not be a comfortable horse and will use much of its diet to produce heat and keep it warm rather than maintaining condition. Activity generates heat but remember that a stabled horse is unlikely to undertake adequate activity to generate enough heat to keep it warm. If you are wearing your best padded and insulated coat you will not stay warm and comfortable if only standing still all day. A very effective way to keep your horse comfortable is to use an inexpensive duvet as an under rug. It will be light weight and very warm. Do not forget the neck, particularly if your horse likes to stand with his neck over the door catching all the weather.

If you have horses turned out in fields they will benefit from feeding and the digestion of hay will generate more heat than the digestion of concentrated feed. To this end it is good practice to make sure your outdoor horses have enough hay to see them through the colder night time hours.

As a final reminder do not forget the 4 W’s.

If your horse is warm, well fed, well-watered and wormed and he be a happy horse this winter.

John Killingbeck
5th November 2019


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