Buck Your Horse's Wintertime Blues

Buck Your Horse's Wintertime Blues

Heidmann, Peter
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In late summer the last thing on your mind might be optimizing the fall and wintertime care for your horses. If you’re like me, you’re probably more interested in actually riding your horse than in managing it. But enhancing your horse’s health this season can be easy and intuitive if you keep some essential facts of equine evolution in mind.

Give Your Horse a Steady, Seasonal Diet
Horses mostly evolved on grasslands that offered consistent diets. As a result, inconsistent diets cause indigestion and sometimes serious colic. Gradual diet adjustments that mimic seasonal changes are best, enhancing digestion by slowly modifying the populations of beneficial digestive bacteria in the colon.

When providing hay, buy as much as you can store. This will decrease the need to manage diet transitions. Especially when you are switching from pasture to hay, make the transition over 10-14 days. Figure you will need to increase calories by 10%-25% during colder weather.

Help Maintain a Strong Immune System
Since husbandry was introduced, horses’ relatively higher population densities mean that diseases and parasites have more opportunity to become established. But not all diseases are created equally—respiratory diseases like Rhinopneumonitis (“Rhino”), influenza, and Streptococcus transfer by nose-to-nose contact and spread more readily when horses live close together. When immunity is further compromised by changing weather conditions, horses may be more susceptible to infection.

Vaccinate your horse for high-risk diseases before winter, but also consider vaccination when diseases are common or when an infection has the potential to cause severe illness. Minimizing crowding is also important.

Remember to de-worm regularly. Although adult horses have immunity to ascarids, other parasites such as strongyles and stomach bots “bioaccumulate,” and comprehensive deworming programs can minimize infestation. Even when fecal samples are devoid of parasites, infestation may remain. I recommend de-worming before winter so that extra feed gets into your horse and not into the parasites.

You’re Not the Only One Who Gets Cold
Horses have evolved to tolerate extreme temperatures, but some may not do well when they are moved to a new climate or from inside to outside housing (or vice versa). When I was young, our horses were never blanketed, and by midwinter, they had acclimated to sub-zero temperatures without a problem. One client recently commented, “I just don’t understand all this fuss over blankets. It’s a horse, for gosh sakes! Pretty soon we’ll see people putting bonnets and leg-warmers on their horses.”

It’s true that blanketing may be unnecessary except during sudden extremes in temperature or when health is already compromised, but blankets help preserve calories, keeping horses fatter on less winter feed. Especially early in the season when wintertime hair has not yet developed, you should consider shelter, blankets, or both whenever the maximum or minimum temperatures quickly change by 20 degrees or more.

Staying mindful of these strategies and of equine evolution should help you minimize your horse’s health risks during changing seasons. But always consult your veterinarian about specific strategies to suit your horses.




Peter Heidmann is an equine veterinarian and owner of Montana Equine / Equine Vet Associates in Belgrade. He has a special interest in equine preventative medicine and disease prevention.




Hi Ho Hilton!
Although they might not have spas or room service, here are some local boarding facilities that are sure to keep your horse safe, warm, and in touch with his neigh-bors this winter.

Holloway Lessons and Training
770 McReynolds Road
763-4113

R Lazy 5 Horse Boarding
1040 Nelson Road
586-8155 OR 581-4067

Tri-H Stables
400 Van Dyke Road
587-7822

Shamrock Stables
5809 Gooch Hill Road
586-2669
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