Sunday, December 21, 2008

Global Warming, My You-Know-What!

Kidding, kidding, but if you're in the PNW, you're seeing some weather we're very much not used to. I grew up in the Midwest and spent 30+ years of my life breaking ice out of buckets. I was trying to get away from this but it seems to have followed me. We're mid-blizzard right now with temps about 20 degrees colder than we're used to at this time of year, and it's no fun.

So that gives us a good topic that I don't think we've talked about here before: Cold weather horsekeeping tips. How do you keep horses happy and healthy in colder-than-normal or subzero temps?

1. Temperate water. Horses won't drink as much if the water is icy cold, and they certainly can't - contrary to popular asshat belief - get enough water by eating snow. Some horse are smart enough to break a surface layer of ice on the tank - others won't even try. They shouldn't have to. Supply a tank heater or if that's not possible for some reason, pails of hot water poured on top will generally thaw things out. There are thermal and heated buckets available for your stall-kept horse. Remember, horses who don't drink enough get impactions. Neither you nor your vet wants to be out dealing with a colic in ten degree weather.

2. Plenty of hay! When temps are colder than normal, provide lots of hay. Free choice is ideal. I know there are folks that scorn round bales because of their fear of a moldy spot and the waste factor, but from experience, there is no better way to keep fat happy hard keepers all winter in a cold climate than by providing quality round bales and letting them eat 24/7. Failing that, adding lunch on frigid days or adding an extra flake at each feeding will go far toward helping your horses deal with the cold. If you have easy keepers, look for grassy hay that isn't rich to provide a safe choice for 24/7 munching.

3. Please warm your bits! Did you ever get your tongue stuck to a metal post as a child in the cold? What do you think it's like for your horse when you stick a freezing cold bit in his mouth? The bit should be room temperature before you bridle. Whether it gets that way by rubbing it between your hands, tucking it under your arm, a commercially available bit warmer or running it under hot water, get that bit warm or don't complain when you create a head-shy, resistant horse who doesn't want to be bridled.

4. Protect your horse from ice. Walk around your pastures and paddocks. If there are spots that are "skating rinks," do something about them. You can use a commercial ice melt solution or just throw out some kitty litter or sand, but do something to give your horse a little grip. Every winter I hear about old horses shattering legs on the ice. If conditions are just impossible, your horse is better off "suffering" a few days with just a little turnout in the indoor arena - a little stiffness and stir-craziness beats a bad injury.

5. To blanket or not to blanket? Horses who have grown a thick winter coat are usually sufficiently protected from the cold. The problems come when they get wet enough to soak through to the skin. Freezing rain, sleet, and similar conditions may necessitate a waterproof blanket even for a horse with a good coat. I've heard people argue this, but if you can see your horse shivering from 20 feet away - it's time for a blanket, even if he's never needed one before. That said, if you don't spend the money on a blanket that is truly waterproof, you are doing more harm than good. A sopping wet stable blanket in cold conditions is misery for a horse.

6. Do you have a shelter hog? I do. I have one mare who thinks she owns any run in shed she's near. She will block it like a goalie and prevent other horses from entering. Even if your run-in shed looks big enough for your whole crew, you may have to watch to see how well it works in practice. Your "wimp" who always gets pushed out may need to come into a stall on days when you see the others staying in their shelter.

7. A sweaty horse is a cold horse. If you ride during the winter enough to work your horse into a sweat, blanket early in the fall to inhibit coat growth and body-clip if necessary. A clipped horse cools out fast and can still live outdoors with sufficient blanketing, particularly if you do a partial clip like a trace clip - but a horse with a coat like a yak won't dry off for hours and will freeze in the meantime. Putting a blanket back on a wet coat is just asking for rain rot and other similar skin problems, and putting a still-wet horse back out in the field with no protection is downright cruel.

8. What goes on, must come off. It's easy to put a blanket on in November and not take it off until March, especially if you don't ride in the winter. Horse owners do it all the time, but it's really not a good idea. You can't see weight under the blanket, and all kinds of coat conditions can be developing. Horses can absolutely get rain rot under a blanket, particularly if they were dirty when the blanket was put on them. Make a habit of taking blankets off periodically to check what's underneath and give the horse a grooming.

9. Don't stall if you're not going to clean them! Ever walked into a closed up barn that isn't being cleaned regularly in the winter? The ammonia smell is enough to knock you over - and it's just as unhealthy for a horse's respiratory system. Add to that the risk of thrush and it comes down to this - if you hate the cold and you know you're get the stalls cleaned daily, better to leave the horses outside (with some kind of shelter they can choose to go into).

10. How cold is too cold to ride? When I was living in the Midwest, we didn't work horses when it was under 10 or 15 degrees inside the indoor arena. Under those temps, we walked them out or turned them out. There's a big difference between a light walk-trot ride and serious schooling, too. If it's cold enough that jogging would hurt your lungs, think twice before putting your horse through a cardio workout. And pay attention to surfaces - if you don't have an indoor arena with cushy footing that is unaffected by weather, be very careful. Frozen ground is not only slippery, but it can be like working your horse on concrete. Finally, some horses are particularly prone to ice and snow packing into "balls" in their shoes. The end result is a horse who is walking on polo balls on all four hooves. You may want to have your farrier put pads on in the winter to prevent this from happening.

That's everything I could think of - what advice can you add? I know we have some Alaskans here so you guys really must have this stuff mastered - can't wait to hear your ideas!