Caring for a horse is a huge commitment - not only financially but with your time, too.
During the warmer months the rewards are obvious; whether you compete or simply appreciate spending lazy summer days in the company of your four-legged friend.
For all the enjoyment and love your horse brings to you in those months it’s essential to provide the best winter care possible to reap these benefits again later on in the year.
The horse has evolved to eat for about 75 percent of the day so during the winter months ad lib hay may need to be provided if grass is not readily available or turnout time has been reduced.
Your horse will be using stored fat reserves to keep warm and will require more energy to maintain his core temperature and carry out tasks in the colder months. Ensuring your horse has access to adequate forage (for example, grass, hay or haylage) is essential, not only to maintain energy levels but the process of digesting forage produces a lot of heat so will help keep him warm – it’s like horses have their own internal central heating system.
Due to the reduced nutritional level of grass in the winter, a vitamin and mineral supplement may need to be provided.
When putting extra forage in the field, make sure there are more piles of hay than there are horses, and keep them far enough apart so they can't kick each other. This reduces bullying, encourages your horse to move around, prevents the ground from becoming poached and reduces the risk of conditions such as mud fever (a bacterial infection on the legs usually associated with horses stood in deep mud for long periods of time).
The art of getting the right balance of food for your horse is science in itself. Don’t be tempted to simply increase their hard feed intake over winter as this could lead to obesity or conditions such as laminitis and colic. As a general rule your horse should be fed about 2.5 percent of its body weight.
The amount a horse should be fed depends on the time of year, age and condition of the horse, workload and quality of feed. If your horse gains or loses weight any time of the year you may need to review your feeding plan, however a good doer that loses a bit of weight in the winter - before the lush grass of spring arrives - is not a disadvantage. If in any doubt seek professional advice.
Water troughs must be checked at least twice a day to ensure they have not frozen over and surface ice must be broken if necessary. Some horses may not like to drink very cold water so you may need to try topping up water buckets with warm water to take the chill off.
Braving the elements
Horses generally grow a long, thick coat for the winter and produce natural oils that will keep it waterproof. Native breeds or cob types have adapted well to our elements and generally will cope being turned out without the need for rugs.
Don't overgroom unrugged horses as this may strip the coat of the natural oils and reduces its waterproofing abilities; dry mud or dirt also provides an extra layer of warmth. Other breeds like the Thoroughbred or Arab, clipped horses or older horses may require rugs for additional warmth, but always remove these at least once a day to check for sores or rubs, overheating and to be able to monitor your horse’s weight and condition.
However hardy your breed of horse, it's strongly recommended to provide a shelter, which will benefit them in both summer and winter. Hedges and trees will provide a natural shelter, but a sturdy, professionally built shelter will work just as well.
This is where planning ahead can really be beneficial - not only for you but for your horse. While the weather is still mild, it's the perfect time to remove weeds before they seed, check drains and ditches are clear of debris and carry out any necessary fencing or water supply maintenance.
You should also check the fields daily for sycamore seeds and acorns, abundant at this time of year, both are poisonous to horses and easily blown onto the pasture on windy days. If you have these trees on your pasture ideally fence them off.
Wet weather brings a risk of fields becoming poached. Hardcore may be needed if gateways or water access points become very poached. Moving water troughs or buckets periodically will help to reduce poaching around these areas. Rotate grazing to avoid poaching or designate a field specifically for winter turnout, ideally well draining fields.
During the most severe winter months the amount of time turned out may need to be restricted in very wet conditions to prevent excessive poaching and health problems such as mud fever. However where possible daily turnout is recommended for the horse’s health. All horses should be exercised and spend time out of the stable every day.
Droppings should still be removed, along with an effective worming programme, to reduce the risk of parasite burden.
Care of the older horse
Caring for an older horse can be more challenging in the winter months and extra care and attention should be taken to monitor their condition.
They may need stabling for longer periods during the harshest weather so ensure the stable is well-ventilated and not compromising their respiratory health. Mobility should still be encouraged by putting hay in different corners of the stable or taking them for a walk in-hand.
If you notice your horse finds it difficult to walk in the colder days, check they are warm enough (an additional rug may be needed) or a joint supplement may be required, but check with your vet first. Routine checks on their teeth and feet should not be overlooked.
Case of the winter blues?
Don’t try to skimp on time spent with your horse just because it’s cold. Daily checks are all the more important in winter.
If you need motivation to get you through, keep your favourite summer photo of you and your horse in your tack locker or feed room and start planning ahead the competitions or leisure rides you want to take part in.
Before you know it, spring will be here!