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How to winter your horse well


How will your horse cope with the season ahead? With the right preparation he should sail through to spring, as Gil Riley MRCVS explains.

With daylight hours diminishing and the colder, wetter conditions setting in, it is worth considering the challenges our horses will face in the coming months.

While management changes are inevitable, some up-front planning can ease in a new  regime and prevent the more common winter health problems.

For horses spending more time indoors, the stable environment becomes critical. By far the most effective method of keeping dust-related problems, such as recurrent airway obstruction (RAO), under control is to limit the presence of airborne particles.

Good ventilation is vital,so a stable should ideally open onto fresh air. If the stable is in a barn, a good rule of thumb is that the turnover of air should be sufficiently brisk that spiders cannot weave their webs — that is, there should be minimal cobwebs.

Dust-free bedding is always the best choice, but don’t take your supplier’s word for it — put it to the test by throwing a handful up into the air. If it leaves a cloud of dust, it is unlikely to be conducive to your horse’s health.

Pay attention to forage quality, too. It has been suggested that almost all hay made in the UK climate is unsuitable to feed to horses without first being soaked. While this may not be quite so true after the weather we’ve enjoyed this summer, there is no doubt that soaking will always significantly reduce dust levels.

Fluff out the hay within the net and submerge the whole lot in clean, fresh water for 30 minutes. Not only will the hay be much less likely to adversely affect respiratory health, but it will also be softer and more palatable.

Grazing is of poorer quality and less calorie and nutrient-dense in the colder months. The decreased nutritional content, allied to the fact that a horse burns more calories in winter to keep warm, can lead to weight loss.

Some weight loss over winter is important, as it will mimic the horse’s natural metabolic state. A reduction of one body condition score over the season, from 3.5 (on a five-point scale) at the end of summer to 2.5 at the beginning of spring, is of major benefit in preventing equine metabolic syndrome – a condition that occurs as a direct result of obesity.

Excessive weight loss is not to be encouraged, however, and it is important to replace nutrition and energy lost from grass with other sources, ideally with forage.

Keep tabs on any fluctuations with a weekly weightaping, performed at the same time of day (first thing before breakfast is usually best), or store photos on your mobile phone to compare your horse’s condition week on week.

A leaner horse is at much less risk of laminitis when the fresh spring grass comes through.

Stiffening up

The cold can cause joints to stiffen, especially in the older horse who is typically stabled more and ridden less.

The most effective remedy is to maximise turnout, where conditions allow, so consider the management of land to maintain grazing throughout winter. It is generally agreed that supplementing a horse’s diet with a veterinary-approved joint supplement, such as one containing glucosamine or chondroitin sulphate, can help.

Phenylbutazone (bute) can relieve aching joints, as long as your vet considers it appropriate.

Worm control is particularly important during winter, when small redworm emerge en masse from hibernation in the wall of the large intestine — a process known as cyathostomiasis. This can potentially damage the gut and lead to disease that can be fatal.

Worm egg counts, performed every three to four months throughout the year and followed by worm treatment, if appropriate, are strongly advised.

Because egg counts cannot test for the presence of the encysted larvae, however, it is vital that every horse is wormed for this parasite with an effective product just before the onset of winter.

The veteran horse will require extra care during colder months when the effects of conditions linked with ageing, such as PPID (Cushing’s disease), can worsen. Signs of Cushing’s include weight loss, laminitis, lice infestation and vulnerability to infections.

Contact your vet to arrange a blood test should you be suspicious, or even as a pre-winter precaution.

Bite-sized advice

Toothcare should be a priority as winter approaches. A sore mouth may limit food consumption, while ice-cold water can increase dental pain, which may dissuade a horse from drinking and lead to dehydration.

A timely examination by a vet or a registered equine dental technician will pick up any problems that can be addressed before they become serious.

Clean, fresh drinking water should be available 24/7. Adding a kettle or two of boiling water to bring the temperature to lukewarm is a great tip to encourage a horse with mild tooth pain to drink.

An older horse may benefit from a senior feed, which contain more easily digestible protein.

Consider rugging him both indoors and out, too, as he’ll have a decreased fat layer in his skin, so will lose more heat.

Preparing field-kept youngsters for winter also requires some thought. Supplementing feed with youngstock mix is a good way of providing the growing body with sufficient energy, while rugs will conserve heat in thin-skinned animals.

Remember that youngsters are known for trashing rugs, so be prepared to check twice daily that layers are not rubbing and are in place.

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