We love the seasonal lifestyle but winter does bring some particular challenges, especially for older animals whose coping mechanisms may have deteriorated a bit over time. Here are a few winter survival tips to help you manage.
Tip 1; Winter is about water, it may seem to be everywhere but the most important thing is that animals are drinking it! Obviously, licking a frozen block of ice will not provide adequate water intake but even very cold water may discourage a horse from drinking enough to avoid dehydration and the colic symptoms that often follow. Consider methods to keep the water sources warm, both to prevent freezing and to encourage drinking. (research has shown that water warmed to 39*F results in greater water intake)
Tip 2; To get (and keep) your engines running... it takes calories! Older horses may need more hay to maintain body condition in the winter. Hay, digested mainly by bacterial fermentation in the large bowel, produces the heat that the animal uses to maintain it's core body temperature. If your senior horse can't get enough calories from hay, maybe due to dental issues, alternatives like pelleted, senior specific feeds or the addition of grain, a fat supplement or beet pulp should be considered.
extra tip; Watch your horse eat. Note whether or not he/she is actually successfully eating their feed. If it's balling up and falling out of their mouth (quidding) give us a call to examine his/her teeth. Aged animals often have worn or missing teeth, good dental care can be a huge help to them. Now, check the other end... look at the manure, if you see bits of hay over an inch long, your horse may not be digesting his/her hay properly.
Tip 3; To blanket or not to blanket, that is the (ongoing) question. There are lots of considerations depending on each unique situation. Horses were originally designed to manage winter weather just fine, but sometimes a little help is indicated. For instance, yes to blanketing if shelter from wind, rain, cold is marginal or non-existent. Yes if your animal suffers from moisture caused skin infections (rain-rot etc.) Yes if your animal is clipped. Blankets have evolved to serve several purposes. Coolers are designed to wick moisture away from the body after exercise. Sheets help keep skin clean. Weather proof, breathable jackets are for rainy days in the paddock and warm rugs protect during cold nights in the barn. The primary goal, even more than warmth, is to keep water away from the skin surface. Learn what each blanket is made to do and how to layer them properly for cozy critters no matter what the weather throws at them.
Tip 4; No foot, no horse. If your horse is barefoot, or even if it's not, a wet, Washington winter is hard on hooves! They often become soft and susceptible to bruising, thrush & abscess formation. Boots or pads may help with that. Skin soaked in muck may develop dermatitis (scratches)... a bugger to resolve once it affects the pastern areas. Successfully tackling these issues is best through prevention and good stable management.
Tip 5; Use it or lose it. We all need regular exercise in our "golden" years. Keeping your horses moving is important to help lubricate arthritic joints and maintain muscle tone. Depending on the animal, light riding at a walk, hand walking and turn out are the minimum.