It's bad enough that we as horse caretakers must limit our horse-related activities by necessity during the winter months. Less daylight, inclement weather, sick days associated with the fall/winter season plague us and deny us our quality time with our horses. But we must also address some specific winter horse health challenges as well to ensure that our horses stay safe, happy and healthy.
We typically associated dehydration with heat and summer. But making sure that our horses' water intake is adequate can be quite a challenge during the winter months as well. I know I sure don't like drinking cold water when I'm outside in the cold! You can bet your horse probably feels the same. Dehydration can contribute to serious health problems for your horse like increased risk of colic. Check this article for what to look for and tips to help keep your horse hydrated when the weather turns cold – https://www.heavenlygaitsequinemassage.com/horse-dehydration-in-winter/.
As with us humans, the cold wet winter months see increased incidence of respiratory issues for horses. Weakened immune systems, damp moldy hay, increased time spent in a dusty barn with limited ventilation, can all be contributing factors for an increased risk of developing upper respiratory infections or aggravate pre-existing chronic respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD. Taking some simple steps like providing additional supplementation to support your horse's immune system, checking your hay regularly and making sure your barn has adequate ventilation can go a long way in nipping potential problems in the bud.
Cold, damp conditions can also help contribute to joint stiffness and pain that may be due to chronic conditions like arthritis or an old injury. A decrease in physical activity during winter weather can also cause horses to stiffen up. Movement helps to create heat within the body plus keep joints healthy and the body flexible. Whenever possible, limit the amount of time that your horse must remain in a confined space. This is particularly important for the geriatric horse, where once the mobility is lost, it is much harder to get back.
If your horse is prone to stiffness or has an old injury that may be aggravated by the cold weather, adding a joint supplement to their diet may be beneficial. Your horse may also appreciate a massage and/or application of a natural linament to help sooth those cramped muscles and stiff joints.
Unfortunately, hoof health is one of the things that tends to get neglected in winter. It can be quite a challenge to keep a horse's hooves cleaned out and dry when you have melting snow, ice and generally wet, muddy conditions. These conditions can lead to increased risk of problems like thrush or white line disease. It can also be quite a challenge to get the hoof care professional out as often as you may need if weather causes dangerous road conditions, making it difficult for travel or just not ideal to work in. Coating your horse's hooves as much as possible with antibacterial/antifungal hoof treatments may help reduce the risk of at least some of these common hoof problems. And having an area of "high ground" or a dry barn that your horse can have access to when conditions become extreme may help, although may not be an option for some.
Believe it or not, just the simple act of staying warm in cold weather burns a LOT of calories! See this article for informative study on the subject – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/02/fat-cells-cold-temperature-burn-calories-heat_n_3535331.html. Therefore, it is important that horses increase their caloric intake during cold weather or risk losing weight. This can be especially challenging for the geriatric horse whose digestive system and dental health may be compromised and not functioning at peak. The very act of digesting hay actually helps to generate heat within the horse's body, helping them keep warm. So ensuring adequate supplies of free choice clean, dry hay is very important. But additional easily digestible calories may be necessary for some horses through the addition of something like a good quality senior feed, beet pulp, soaked alfalfa pellets and/or high quality top dress oil. Have your horse's teeth evaluated by a qualified equine dentist at least once or twice a year to help identify and address problems early.
So, while we inevitably must cut back on our horse time during the winter, there are steps we can take to help make our horses a bit more comfortable during the "down time" and improve the chances that they will be ready to go full swing when warmer days reappear. Please feel free to share some of your winter weather strategies in the comment section below!
The information in this article is not meant to diagnose, treat or cure any condition or illness. Nor is it meant replace proper veterinary care. It is meant for educational purposes only. Always consult your chosen veterinary professional before starting your horse or other animal on any therapy.
Lisa Carter is a Certified Equine Massage Therapist (CEMT), with multiple certifications from several different equine bodywork schools. She incorporates her knowledge and experience with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, equine bodywork, using essential oils for animals and as a veterinary technician to provide her clients with the resources they need to make informed decisions for their horses. She encourages and facilitates network building between equine health care professionals, working together to find the best combination of therapies to meet the needs of the "whole horse".
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