Keeping horses happy in winter

A rug will keep a horse warm in winter, as will hay, the digestion of which creates internal heat (M

A rug will keep a horse warm in winter, as will hay, the digestion of which creates internal heat (MayWhiston/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Field-kept horses and ponies are hardy, but need extra help in winter. Susanna Ballinger of Rossdales Hertfordshire gives her advice

Winter in Hertfordshire ranges from frosty mornings and bright blue skies to murky days with incessant rain. We can dress accordingly. But what happens to horses? Stabled animals are warm and dry, but how do we ensure the wellbeing of field-kept horses and ponies? Horses can happily live outside all year. They are resilient and adapt to conditions, but some basic amenities in winter are essential.

Horses adapt as weather gets colder by growing a thicker coat that contains waterproofing oils. Its direction of growth even sheds rain more quickly. While horses can get muddy in winter, grooming should be kept to a minimum to allow the coat to protect as nature intends.

Some horses need rugs, especially if they are older or don’t have access to good shelter. It’s important to ensure rugs fit properly and are the correct weight for the weather – too hot will cause sweating and discomfort, but as rugs prevent the coat puffing up, they need to be thick enough to compensate. Put rugs only on clean, dry animals. Check daily and replace any that are wet or ripped.

Shelter is important for field horses. This can be an anchored shelter, strong enough to withstand gusts and hard rain, or natural shelter, such as hedges and trees. It’s quite common to see horses standing next to a shelter, using it as a windbreak, so don’t be surprised if they don’t go inside.

Grass is in limited supply in winter, and what there is of it is of low nutritional value. Providing supplementary hay or haylage is essential in most cases. Forage is not merely for feed – a horse’s gastrointestinal system not only digests the hay, it generates heat in doing so, keeping it warm from the inside out. It’s usually a good idea to supplement hay or haylage with hard feed. There are many different types, with different calorific content, so it’s best to contact the manufacturer or a veterinary surgeon and ask which is best for your horse and its particular living conditions.

Everyone knows animals need access to drinking water. In winter this is even more important as the forage consumed by horses and ponies has up to 80 per cent less moisture than grass. Check the trough or buckets twice daily, ensuring a plentiful supply is maintained and that they are not frozen over. A mineral or salt lick is also useful to provide trace elements and encourage water consumption. Lack of water, particularly in winter, causes serious health problems.

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Checking a horse twice daily is important. Try to check at least once a day in daylight. Any abnormal behaviour should be immediately attended to.

With the inevitable increase in mud, legs can become wet and caked and must be monitored for skin lesions. Deep mud and slippery ground means horses are also more prone to lameness due to a range of issues including tendon injuries.

It’s best to plan ahead and make life easier for you and your horse, so make simple preparations. Check and clean rugs. Check shelter is in good repair. Ensure a torch has new batteries and you have a warm waterproof coat, hat, gloves and boots by the back door. Stock up on de-icer for gate padlocks and keep a mallet to smash ice on water troughs. And ensure your mobile phone is charged. Keep the number of your veterinary surgeon in your phone.

Just like horses, we like company, so why not buddy up with a horsey friend and help each other out on frosty mornings and dark winter evenings? w

Susanna Ballinger BVSc MRCVS is partner at Rossdalesand manages veterinary care for high-performance competition horses and ponies across Hertfordshire. Susanna and her team of vets provide 24/7 veterinary care for leisure horses, ponies and donkeys every day of the year and provide an out-of-hours emergency service.