It’s been a fairly horrendous winter in North America. Even in the relatively sunny and usually warm Southwest, we’ve had record cold–freezes deep enough and long-lasting enough to do in a lot of the plant life, though we expect most of it to come back. What we haven’t had, somewhat ironically, is snow–though we’ve had a bit in previous years.
As you might expect, this makes horsekeeping a challenge. Horses are cold-weather organisms, designed for the steppe; their optimal temperature range is in the 50sF/low teens C. They can, with time to adapt (10-20 days on average), deal quite easily and well with temperatures well below freezing. Their winter coats are thick, have plenty of loft, and trap warmth beautifully; plus their bodies are designed to maintain heat.
What gets them is wet, and to a lesser extent wind. Anything, basically, that compromises the loft of the coat. A soaked horse is a horse without defenses against cold and wet. Add wind and you’ve got real problems.
Human meddling and convenience can complicate things even further. A horse in full winter coat, when ridden, will get sweaty especially under the saddle and on the neck and flanks, and can take hours to try. The solution in a boarding barn is to clip and then blanket him–which means he can end up with a whole range of blankets for different temperature ranges, indoor or outdoor (the latter will be waterproof and breathable as well as designed and fitted to stay put when the horse gets to running around and rolling and playing), just hanging around or being ridden or cooling out after a ride.
But external warmth isn’t all a horse owner has to worry about in winter. Horses need to be fed differently, too–starting with more calories to help generate heat and keep weight in the cold. It’s not as simple as upping the grain ration. That in fact is a bad idea. Horse metabolism isn’t designed to handle high doses of concentrated nutrients. The horse is a grazing animal–and that means what he needs the most of is forage. Grass hay for preference, and plenty of it. He may need as much as two or three times as much hay in the winter as in the summer, to keep the same amount of weight.
But if he’s just fed lots of hay and doesn’t drink enough to keep it moving through the system, that’s bad, too. Impaction colic, expensive vet call, possible surgery with chance of not making it bad. But many horses get picky about drinking water in cold weather. Either they don’t like cold water, or worse, the water available is frozen.
Winter-savvy horses can and will break the ice in a stock tank or a bucket to drink, but not all horses are that smart, and when the cold is severe and persistent, the water supply can freeze solid.
There’s been a lot of that this winter. We were lucky here: I’m from Maine, and knew the old trick of running a hose at a trickle to keep the water running. That and exposed pipes wrapped in towels and, in one case, roll cotton and Vetrap like a horse’s leg (well, it worked!), got us through several days of completely unprecedented sub-freezing temperatures. We were able to keep the horses drinking by hauling buckets of warm water from the house, wetting hay and grain, and frequently breaking ice on barrels.
Even so, the 100-gallon tank ended up with a foot-thick coat of ice, which took three days at well above freezing to thaw.
It gave me a new appreciation of horsekeeping in the north country, where temperatures stay below freezing, with few exceptions, from October to March. In that climate, bucket heaters and heated water tanks are a godsend, and a reliable, unfrozen water supply to the barn is absolutely invaluable. Horses must drink. That’s not negotiable. Therefore a lot of thought and expense goes into keeping the water supply coming.
Where snow falls early and often, there’s the added challenge of making sure that humans can get into the barn, and horses can get out. In snow country, a heated indoor arena, at least 100 feet long and preferably even larger, is a godsend. It’s used not only for riding and training but for turning out stallbound horses when the paddocks and pastures are too snowy or icy for use. Enterprising barn staff may plow some paddocks, but that’s not always practical or even feasible.
This year there’s been a particularly horrible series of barn and arena collapses–barns “pancaked” with horses trapped under the fallen roofs. Arenas with their open structures and widely separated trusses have been exceptionally vulnerable, but even century-old barns that have withstood numerous winters have come down under the weight of snow.
Horses whose barns stay up can still run into problems outside: they may pull tendons in deep or heavy snow, and can slip and fall on ice. Their hooves are designed by nature to handle a fair range of terrain, but ice and horse hooves are not a great match. Snow can pack into the underside and create a sort of rolling clog effect, which makes balance and movement difficult. Add shoes, which make the snowpack even worse, and you’ve got a situation that requires a hammer and chisel.
There are various shoe designs that are meant to cope with winter conditions.We used to put what we called “snow treads” on our horses in New England. These would be plastic or acrylic pads that covered the base of the hoof, with the shoes applied over them. There wouldn’t be any cracks and crevices for snow to pack into; it was relatively easy to pick it out from around the shoe.
Horses shod with borium can get good traction on slippery footing, but run the risk of injuring tendons or ligaments if they get a little too much traction. Same goes for cleats, which can also injure the horse if he happens to catch one on another foot or leg. Removable studs are a more flexible option–they’re used for summer riding on grass or on hard ground, as well.
Often, if the horse isn’t going to be ridden at speed on snow or ice, and if his feet are of sufficient quality to tolerate it, his owner may opt to leave him barefoot through the winter. A bare hoof is less likely than a shod one to trap and pack snow, and has better traction on ice as well. It’s believed in some quarters that pulling shoes and “letting the hooves rest” for a few months is a good way to encourage hoof quality and give the horse a chance to move around the way nature intended.
Not all horses can do this. Some lack the genetics–their feet may be excessively small, or poorly shaped, or the quality of the hoof itself is poor: thin or brittle wall, thin sole, tendency to overgrow or undergrow the toe or heel or grow inconsistently, etc. Some have various forms of trauma, years of poor hoof care, bad farriery, poor nutrition, work schedule and nature or quality of footing that wears down hooves faster than they can recover–there are about as many reasons as there are horses.
Winter, in short, is challenging for the horse and the humans who look after him. He may be a steppe-and-tundra animal, and a cold-weather organism, but keeping him warm, hydrated, and fed is an constant and sometimes difficult process. Everyone is glad to see the spring thaw–though that will bring its own challenges. (Mud. Also, mud. And did I mention mud?)