We are now well into Autumn, and for many of us our horses will be moving onto a Winter routine. So how can you keep your horse happy and healthy with these changes? Many horses will be stabled for longer periods, they will be fed more hay and supplementary feeding may be difficult for some. It can be difficult to ride with the shorter days and these changes can result in health problems for our horses. However there are lots of steps that owners can take to keep their horses well, and here are eight suggestions for you to try.
1. Clean up time
Did you get a chance to give your stables a good Spring clean? If like me you’re a bit ‘last minute’ don’t panic you still have time to create a better environment for your horse. Now is the time to lift up the rubber mats, power wash the walls and floors and get rid of the cobwebs. Doing so will greatly help your horse’s respiratory system, as dust and ammonia can act as an irritant to your horse’s airways. Your horse is likely to be spending a lot of time in the stable over the Winter months so this will be time well spent.
2. Make changes gradually
A high proportion of colic cases are attributed to changes in management, such as sudden box rest, or a change in diet. Many horses are turned out all day every day over the Summer months, and then often stabled at night when the clocks change at the end of October. Instead why not start bringing your horse in for a few hours a day at the beginning of October and gradually build this up. This will get your horse used to being stabled again, and will also help make a gradual change of diet from grass to hay or haylage.
3. Body Condition Score your horse
Most horses will have gained some weight over the summer months, and now is the time to objectively look at your horse, and decide if they need to lose some weight. The Winter months are the perfect time for weight loss, so why not body condition score your horse (ask your vet or yard manager to help you if you’re not sure how to do this) and make an action plan. Enlist the help of a nutritionist or your vet to look at ways to cut your horse’s calorific intake but still provide them with sufficient vitamins and minerals, and forage for digestive health. You will be improving your horse’s health long term if you can keep them at a healthy weight, and don’t forget that horses are designed to gain weight during the grazing season and then lose it over the Winter ready for the next Spring. You can learn more about Autumn Laminitis and weight loss here in this video.
4. Keep them moving
Over the Winter months it can be harder to ride as much as you might like, but keeping your horse active will have a direct impact on their health both mentally and physically. There are so many ways that you can keep your horse active, and you don’t have to ride everyday. Consider ground work, lunging, long reining, stretches, and even horse agility activities. With a bit of imagination you and your horse can have a busy Winter, even if you can only ride at the weekends.
Try and ensure that your horse has as much turnout as possible over the Winter months, although this can be a challenge with mud, ice and frozen ground. Turning your horse out in an arena, using a horse walker or hand walking your horse are all extra ways to keep your horse moving if you have restricted turnout over the Winter months. We must remember that we are responsible for our horses, they can’t let themselves out of their stables for extra exercise (OK some horses can, but that’s another story!). We are a dietician and personal trainer for our horses and we can’t let this lapse over the Winter.
5. Keep your horse chewing
Your horse is designed to chew frequently, and it’s digestive system needs this chewing action to produce saliva, which has a buffering effect on the acid produced in the stomach. In the wild the horse would be grazing and foraging for around 16 hours a day, and we need to try and mimic this increased chew time when your horse is stabled. You can try using small holed hay nets, have more than one hay ‘station’ in the stable and slow down hay feeders. This way you will be making the hay last and preventing any wastage as well. If you need more ideas try this article.
6. Ensure you have suitable and sufficient bedding
Selecting the right bedding is essential to keep your horse happy and healthy over the winter months. You need bedding that is low dust, absorbs urine and encourages your horse to lie down. Good quality straw can be an excellent choice, but if your horse is greedy you might find shavings or a cardboard bedding a better option, particularly if you are trying to use the colder months as a chance to slim your horse down. I’m not a great fan of creating banks from bedding in the stable, for me it doesn’t stop horses getting cast, and it just harbours dust and moulds.
7. Keep your horse drinking
During the Summer many owners will worry if their horse is drinking enough, but keeping your horse hydrated is as much of a concern during the Winter. Frozen water troughs, great intake of hay and a dislike of cold water can result in your horse not drinking enough in the Winter. It is essential to keep your horse hydrated to help prevent colic, and feeding soaked hay, creating a ‘soup’ from a very wet soaked feed or sugar beet will all help.
8. Make the stable safer
Look around any livery yard and you often find all manor of equipment and rugs stored in the stable. Let’s face it horses can be pretty good at injuring themselves so keeping ‘fixtures and fittings’ to a minimum in the stable is a sensible step. Perhaps there is a tie up ring that you never use, or a protruding nail than could be hammered down. A few minutes risk assessing your stable could prevent an injury.
I hope that this helps you and your horse as you move into a Winter routine.