With no immediate end to the cold weather in sight, here is some advice to help horses cope with the big freeze.
A horses’s best defence against the elements is a good thick coat plus a layer of fat just beneath the skin, which will help reduce body heat loss. Hopefully your horse has gone into winter in good condition and has the extra reserves necessary to help him retain energy and body heat. Although a horse’s thick winter coat will help to keep him warm, the insulating quality of the coat is soon lost if he becomes wet, covered in mud or exposed to biting cold winds.
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Horses in groups tend to stand close together to block out the wind, and benefit from each other’s body warmth but it is important to provide adequate shelter, either bringing them into stables at night or giving access to a field shelter.
Check that all the horses are using the field shelter–some may be reluctant to go in or get bullied out by other horses. If this is the case other arrangements must be made.
Clipped horses, older horses and horses with a poor winter coat need to be rugged up. Layers of extra rugs and fleeces may be necessary to help keep out the cold and prevent loss of condition. Rugs should be removed regularly and the horse given a good brush to keep skin in good condition and allow you to check for skin problems.
Snow that balls up into the horse’s feet can cause bruising to the sole and lameness, so pick feet out regularly and apply a layer of hoof oil or Vaseline inside to help prevent recurrence.
Put sand, salt or grit on tracks to and from fields so that turnout is less treacherous. It is said that cat litter makes a good replacement for grit, which may be a useful tip in areas where there is a shortage.
With temperatures rarely reaching above freezing point, check water troughs several times a day and break the ice (with a hammer if necessary). You may also need to provide additional fresh buckets of unfrozen water. Some horses are encouraged to drink more if you add hot water to take the edge off the cold. Mineral or salt licks can also encourage them to drink and lessen the risk of impaction colic.
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Frozen taps are another problem it may be necessary to fill large containers at home and transport them to the yard.
With so much snow and ice underfoot many horses have not been ridden for several weeks. Adjust feed accordingly, reducing hard food and increasing fiber content (eg hay, haylage, high fiber cubes etc). Put extra hay out for horses in fields, with more piles of hay than horses to ensure every horse can eat in peace.
Horses that are standing around more than usual will appreciate some boredom busting toys, a salt or mineral lick and extra grooming sessions. This will also help prevent the development of behaviour problems such as cribbing or weaving.