We are just ending our second week of January and in these past 2 weeks we have been bombarded with some frigid temps…. for Maryland anyway! Someone from a chillier region might think 8 F (with windchills of -13 F) is a balmy day to ride. But for us, when we go from temperatures in the mid 60s to the mid teens in the span of a week…. It's a major shocker!
Now, you may wonder, what do I do for the horses when it's this cold out? The most important thing is that horses drink. This is Heinrich’s first full year in the USA and each month I am learning something new about him. While Heinrich is a great drinker most days, he doesn’t do so well with extreme changes in the temperature. I have found that when it got extremely hot this summer, and now as the weather has changed to extreme cold, his water intake dropped. The week before Christmas Heinrich had some colicky symptoms. We immediately started adding water to his food. He is on Daily Dose Equine’s Senior feed. The ingredients include timothy hay and roasted oats and barley, plus added electrolytes. This combination lends itself to the makings of a yummy looking mash. Heinrich loves his food, and the nice warm soupy mash of his senior feed plus water gets him really excited. (You might ask why a youngster is on senior feed…. We started him on it when he got to the US because it has a good amount of calories. It is good for his stomach, very palatable and he loves it. So we continue to feed it, though I did cut back his amount).
I also soak Heinrich’s hay and make sure his water is warm and clean (Candido realized Heinrich can be picky about his bucket. If there are too many left over hay scraps dropped into the water, or if it looks dirty, he will be fussy about drinking. I just told Heinrich today that he better not turn into a prima donna!). Doing these things helps keep as much moisture in his system as possible. I will continue to do this during the extreme temperatures and until I am confident that Heinrich is drinking normally. And of course, when it is this bad, all of the horses at Misty Gleann are getting this same treatment to ward off any colics.
Another thing I do for the horses (especially those who tend to be prone to ulcers) is feed a flake of high quality alfalfa at barn check. Alfalfa hay is very good for their stomachs and I give it at night so it has a good chance to work.
In addition to all this, we add a supplement made by Daily Dose Equine called GI Thrive to Heinrich's food. This supplement helps to heal ulcers and is very soothing for a horse's digestive system. There is also added salt to promote good water drinking. While I haven’t thought Heinrich is prone to ulcers so far, I use GI Thrive as a preventative in case he is feeling a little colicky in the extreme temperatures. And most importantly, I want to encourage him to drink water!
Other than this, I mostly just try to keep the horses moving and on as regular a schedule as possible. I monitor their food intake based on their weight and work schedule. They are not getting any green grass like in the summer, so I want to keep an eye on their weight. This is especially important for the horses that normally go out frequently and get a lot of their forage from grass. But otherwise, I don’t do anything too different with their nutrition. Check out the Daily Dose Equine website for more information on Nutrition.
As far as training goes – everyone wants to know when it is too cold to ride. You can find the research online. But I am going to be honest, it is usually more about us not wanting to do anything in the cold than them. Well, it is about both of us. Part of the problem I think is not being acclimated. People who come from colder climates might find our weather balmy. But it is pretty difficult to handle when our temperatures changes so rapidly. However, like us, horses must keep moving to stay limber. So I try to keep them active as much as possible. Not serious training when the temps are so cold, but some light work to keep them moving. Two particular things you need to worry about are the respiratory tract, and the tendons and ligaments.
The horse has a long airway. The body at rest will warm cold air that we breathe in by the time to gets to the lower respiratory tract. With excessive speed however, the body doesn’t have time to do this and the lungs and other parts of the respiratory system get cooled and dried. So if your horse already has respiratory problems, you want to be careful. In any case, just use your common sense. Don’t stress your horse’s breathing in extreme temps. But that doesn’t mean your horse shouldn’t do anything. A lot of walk, some trot and even some canter should be suitable to keep him limber.
You always need to warm your horse up. But particularly in the cold weather, it takes longer for everything to warm up – especially the tendons and ligaments. So, you have to be sure to give your horse a chance to walk before starting any work. In the extreme temps (like our recent high of 16 with real feels in the negative digits), I hand walk and turn out the horses. Honestly, It is probably ok to do some light trot and as long as you don’t stress the airways. But I have to admit, with the wind making everyone 'a little up' and me hating the cold (I have always hated the cold, but as the years add up it seems worse…. Plus at this point in my life and career I feel like I deserve to be a little more wimpy about it ;) ), I welcome the excuse to catch up on some office work!
One other note on horse health in the winter: Remember, they are not humans! Horses handle extreme temperatures better than us. When blanketing, they don’t have to feel hot. They don’t need to be completely shut up in the barn to keep out the cold. The more fresh air they get the better. I only close the windows and doors to prevent a draft. A draft is not good, but otherwise let them hang their heads out their windows and get some light and fresh air. Turn out the same. You need to read your horse and let them tell you. As long as the footing is safe, they can go out in the cold air. I find with our horses that if they get cold or they don’t like the wind, they will start getting fresh and stand by the gate. So we bring them in when they are ready.
Happy cold weather riding!!!