Managing Horses in Winter – How not to get caught out

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The winter time can be stressful for horse owners; not only have we to face the increased cost of feeding and the reduced daylight hours, but sudden harsh weather conditions can trigger a number of veterinary problems.
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Two common problems seen in horses due to the sudden change in temperatures are colic and respiratory infections. The horse’s digestive system does not tolerate sudden changes very well – it likes time to adapt. In a sudden snowy or icy bout, horses may end up stabled for long periods of time and this can lead to colic.

The commonest types of colic seen are colon impactions and spasmodic colics. However, more serious colic cases can occur, so make sure you call your veterinary surgeon if your horse is showing colic signs. Colon impactions tend to take place when your horse is standing in a stable for long periods; this can slow the movement of the guts and can reduce the moisture content of the ingesta passing through, causing a blockage. To prevent this, try to walk your horse out a couple of times a day, if safe to do so, and increase his or her fluid intake by adding water to the hard feed or by wetting hay. Spasmodic colics can occur without any cause, but some may be triggered by a sudden change in feeding regime. Spasmodic colics can be very painful, however they often resolve quite easily with medication. To prevent such colics, make any changes to the diet as slowly as possible and do not feed too many concentrates when your horse is doing less exercise. The horse’s digestive system works much better when fed a high level of fibre, such as hay or haylage, compared to concentrate feed, nuts and mixes, which can contain lots of sugars, protein and soluble carbohydrates. If your horse is living out, and you are concerned about a lack of nutrition when the grass is poor, instead of bulking out with more concentrates, increase the volume of hay or haylage and feed a good balancer. Probiotics can be very useful in helping keep a good quality intestinal environment. Only increase the concentrates if you are concerned your horse may be losing weight or if an old horse is not coping with large volumes of hay.
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Sudden changes in temperature can often cause an increased level of respiratory infections. Many of these are caused by a virus for which there is no direct treatment available, just like the common cold in humans. Viruses tend to spread via respiratory secretions, so try to prevent the spread of the virus between a yard of horses by isolating any showing any nasal discharge or coughing. Most viruses will resolve on their own, but occasionally a secondary bacterial infection may worsen things. If clinical signs persist for a few days, ensure you seek some veterinary attention. Prevention can be difficult. Ensure your horse is warm with either a thick natural winter coat or with rugs if clipped. If you do need to clip your horse again during this time, make sure you compensate with further layers. Try and provide some shelter in the form of a good thick hedge or tree line, a field shelter or stable to ensure they can shield themselves from heavy wind or rain. The main thing is not to make sudden changes in management if possible, and do what your horse is used to!

The winter can be a long slog for old horses, especially those with underlying health problems. In the winter months, when a horse lives out wearing a rug, large amounts of weight loss can go unnoticed. Ensure that you regularly remove rugs to check what is happening underneath, and think carefully about how you are feeding older horses. Many geriatric horses will have poor molar (back) teeth and struggle to eat a long fibre-based diet such as hay because they cannot grind down the long strands. Supplement these horses with geriatric feeds, high fibre soaked feedstuffs such as sugar beet and short chopped chaff, and add more water to the diet to help them to digest it.

Worms can cause weight loss in the winter months, especially in young stock and geriatrics. Often the cause will be Larval Cyathostomiasis, small redworm larvae that over-winter in the wall of the guts. Make sure you cover for them in your worming programme, by using either a 5-day course of Fenbendazole or a Moxidectin wormer in late Autumn.

Finally, another common condition that can catch owners out is mud fever. This may go unnoticed for weeks when horses live in a constantly muddy area, as it can be difficult to examine the pastern area thoroughly. Try to regularly bring them in to wash their lower legs, but make sure your dry them thoroughly afterwards! Barrier creams can be useful on the lower legs, especially on the more susceptible white areas. They help to prevent the constant wet conditions from irritating the skin and allowing infection to set in.

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