Cold weather creates even more reasons to be vigilant about horse care
Poor body condition is often overlooked when it is disguised by a thick hair coat or blanket. An owner who frequently touches her horse becomes familiar with how the body feels when the animal is in good condition. This can be the best tool for maintaining good physical condition. A horse who carries a few extra pounds going into winter often fares better than a horse who is too trim. Because of the extra calories burned simply to maintain body heat, it is more likely that a horse will lose weight over the winter rather than gain. Dropping body weight can also go unnoticed for weeks making it more difficult to correct.
Often the reduced work load during the cold months and some extra grass hay balance out the calories consumed and burned, resulting in a good steady weight that offers a bit of extra fat insulation. Running bare hands over the horse's body frequently or turning the horse out briefly without a blanket can make it clear if a correct body condition is being maintained. Ribs, hipbones and withers feel more prominent beneath the hair if weight is being lost. If the horse is gaining weight, fat deposits often appear first behind and below the withers or right behind the elbow.
Good health care is important all year round so stay up to date on deworming and dental work as both are critical to keeping horses in good condition. The addition of oil-based supplements such as fresh ground flax, especially during the winter, can create a healthier coat with increased loft and better insulating abilities. More durable hooves that are less prone to splitting and chipping are also the result of added oils in the horse's diet, making it a cold weather necessity.
A healthy hair coat is the key to your horse's comfort during the months. Careful, thorough grooming is important in maintaining the coat's insulating abilities. Use a stiff body brush to remove dirt and distribute oils throughout the hair, following the brush with a hand to monitor weight and feel any injuries that may be hidden by a dense coat. If an unclipped horse will be ridden throughout the winter, especially in an indoor arena, be sure that the coat is completely and thoroughly dry after each ride. Because a fit horse sweats less, it is best to ride lightly and consistently during the winter months in a cold climate. A good wool cooler is an invaluable tool as it wicks moisture from the coat while protecting the horse from being chilled from a too-rapid cool down.
A horse that is clipped must be blanketed when the weather is cold or windy. Have several blankets in various weights to meet the needs of the horse in different weather conditions. A disproportionate amount of heat is lost through the head and neck so horses with a trace or show clip should also wear hoods or neck covers. Be sure the blankets fit very well, and that straps are adjusted to avoid entanglement. Blankets should be removed frequently for grooming, to monitor body condition and to check for blanket rubs or other hidden injuries. Wash blankets frequently (have spares) and check them often for broken straps or tears. A dirty or torn blanket is uncomfortable for the horse and loses some of its insulating properties.
Because "poor hooves; poor horse" is the mantra of many horse people, hoof care deserves special attention. Dry air, hard ground and ice can wreak havoc on even the best hooves. The lack of moisture and unforgiving terrain can cause hooves to crack, split and dry out, so be vigilant about trims and regular cleaning even during the off season. Horses who must carry shoes throughout the winter have a unique set of problems. Nail holes tend to dry out and pull away from the nail, resulting in frequently thrown shoes. Replacement often requires adding more holes to an already brittle foot so talk to your farrier about using clips or other alternative fasteners during the cold and dry months. Horse shoes often stay below freezing on the perimeter while softening and trapping snow in the warmer frog area.
The trapped snow turns to ice, resulting in a dangerous and unstable surface for the horse. A ring of very soft rubber can be fitted just inside the edge of the shoe by your farrier; the flexibility of the ring loosens ice as the horse steps, releasing it from the foot. Veterinarians report more large muscle or joint (shoulders, hips, back) injuries during the icy months than even during the peak of the riding season because of slipping accidents. Adding barium to the shoes can result in more stable footing, but young horses especially can become injured because the increased traction keeps the foot from spinning or pulling up from the ground. Strained muscles and hyper extended joints can result until a horse learns how to deal with hooves that stick to the ground.
Vigilance is always the key to good horse-keeping but becomes even more important during the winter months. Stay on top of body condition with frequent physical evaluations; ensure the horse?s comfort with good grooming and consult your farrier about maintaining strong healthy hooves.