Help your horses beat the cold |

Help your horses beat the cold

Additional hay during winter provides extra calories, maintains body temperature

Diane Prather

Stevie Brumback pets her horse Buck on a cold Friday morning at her home west of Craig. With winter weather approaching, horses require extra calories to maintain body temperature in the cold. A blanket also can be used to keep your horse warm.

— This week’s cold and snowflakes are signs of what’s to come, and everyone’s getting homes and cars ready for the winter months ahead.

But winters can be hard on animals, too. For example, there are ways horse owners can help their animals get through the winter.

Brenda Kwang, extension agent for Grand County (Kremmling), and Dessa Linsley, extension agent for Rio Blanco County (Meeker and Rangely), have compiled a list of things that can be done to keep stalled horses “healthy and happy” during western Colorado winters.

Topping the list is the importance of your horse coming into winter carrying enough body weight. Once cold weather sets in, it’s difficult to put weight on horses. Thin horses get colder and use so much energy trying to stay warm that there often aren’t enough calories left.

Make sure your horse has enough food in winter, too. According to Kwang and Linsley, horses require an estimated 15 to 20 percent more calories for each 10 degrees the ambient temperature falls below critical temperature.

Horses with short hair and thin horses need even greater increases in dietary intake to maintain normal body temperature. In addition, different horses have different dietary needs.

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Feeding additional hay during winter provides extra calories and helps maintain body temperature because of the internal heat produced during digestion of fiber.

Kwang and Linsley caution to be careful when feeding alfalfa. Alfalfa is best for horses in strenuous training/exercise programs and for lactating mares with foals. It is not the best choice for a horse that is not being exercised frequently and confined to a stall.

Good quality grass hay can be fed more often or even “free-choice.” Free-choice grass hay will allow your horse to have a more natural feeding schedule and also will decrease boredom.

Alfalfa cannot be fed free-choice as it contains more protein.

Kwang and Linsley also recommend feeding horses on a regular schedule, at least twice per day, regardless of roughage. Horses are grazing animals, and their digestive tracts do better when they eat more often throughout the day.

Also, be sure your horse has a sufficient amount of water at all times. In winter, increasing the amount of hay in the diet increases the water consumption, up to 9 or 10 gallons of water with an all-hay diet.

During winter, increased hay intake combined with decreased water intake contributes to the risk of impaction colic. This is especially a problem when horses are kept in stalls for several days because of inclement weather. Confinement slows intestional motility.

The agents also suggest investing in a water tank heater so your horse has liquid (vs. solid) water.

Be sure to keep the stall clean. Kwang and Linsley suggest keeping a stall cleaning schedule, at least every other day. Dirty stalls can lead to serious problems.

Also, even when it’s cold and icy out, your horse still needs to get out and stretch its legs. A simple 10-minute walk will get the blood pumping and promote water consumption. It will also help prevent boredom.

Confinement to a stall can lead to boredom which leads to behavioral issues for your horse. The agents suggest making a toy from an empty milk jug. Fill the jug with grain, poke a hole in the bottom of the jug, and hang it from the top of the stall. This will give your horse something to do.

Last, there’s the question of a blanket for your horse. In our western Colorado climate, horses typically grow enough hair to keep themselves warm in winter. A blanket can add to the warmth, keep the horse’s hair smooth and usually will not prevent a full winter coat from developing.

If you invest in a blanket, measure your horse and purchase a blanket that fits correctly. A blanket that does not fit well will rub and create sores on the horse. Also, make sure the blanket is removed several times a week to let your horse “air out.”

What if your horse isn’t stalled in winter? Kwang said the basic concepts for winter care are the same.

Alisa Comstock, Moffat County Extension Agent and horse owner, said to make sure that unstalled horses have enough fuel to keep warm, a wind break and enough space to play and exercise.

Comstock said that whether to blanket an unstalled horse is up to the preference of the horse’s owner. She added that it isn’t necessarily bad if a horse is covered with snow as the snow can help insulate the horse.

According to Comstock, unstalled horses can utilize snow for water, but it’s better if they have liquid water that’s not super cold (again, a reason to invest in a tank heater).

Keep your horse happy and healthy this winter.