Managing our horses through the winter

By Vet Freya Wood

As we head into the winter we will inevitably be making a number of management changes for our horses as turnout becomes less available.

Horses like routine, so management changes should be made as slowly as possible, including changes to the diet so as not to upset the gut bacteria. There are several conditions that we see more frequently in winter, as well as preparations we need to make for spring. 

Winter Associated Conditions

Supplementary forage is often required over winter but while grass is easy to chew, forage feeds can get stuck between any gaps (diastema) between teeth, leading to inflammation of the gums which can become very severe. Dental discomfort can lead to weight loss, choke and certain types of colics. Before winter it is a good idea to have your horse’s teeth checked and any issues addressed.

Impaction colics become more common at this time and are caused by an accumulation of dry fibre in the gut. These colics are usually slow in onset and the pain level tends to increase gradually over a few days. These impactions are associated with horses spending more time stabled or undergoing box rest, but there may also be an association with dental disease. 

Reduced drinking can also be an issue during the cold weather. Pipes and water troughs may freeze, and some horses just dislike the cold water and so drink less. This can lead to an increased risk of impaction colics and choke as there is insufficient water to keep the food in the digestive tract hydrated. Monitoring drinking and managing frozen troughs is important. 

Winter management

We need to consider encysted redworm burdens. As part of their life cycle, the small redworms enter a stage of arrested development where they burrow into the wall of the intestine. They remain there over the winter and will emerge all at once in the spring. This can cause colic, diarrhoea, weight loss and in severe cases can be fatal, so it is important that we use an appropriate winter worming treatment for our horses, ponies and donkeys.

Winter is also an excellent time of year to be preparing our overweight equines for the spring. Ideally our horses should be going into the spring in a body condition score no more than 2.5/5 and winter allows us to utilise their natural metabolism to achieve this. The British Horse Society and Blue Cross have body condition scoring charts available online which will allow owners to monitor this at home. We want our horses to be going onto the spring grass with some leeway with regards to weight, and a good guide is that we should be able to see a slight outline of the ribs in the spring. This will be particularly important for those who have previously had episodes of laminitis or have been diagnosed with Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). 

We can achieve this using a combination of clipping and not over-rugging our horses. Many of our overweight and EMS horses and ponies are native or cob types so are designed to be tough. Consider giving the horse a trace or hunter clip and reducing the weight of rugs (if any) that they are wearing. This allows the horse to regulate its own temperature by burning calories. It is important if you are deciding not to rug your horse that they still have somewhere to shelter in the field. The University of Liverpool have a fantastic resource on weight loss in horses, titled “When the grass is greener” which is well worth reading. BETA also have a guide on rugging available online which can help guide decisions on type and weight of rug.