Many Mid-Michigan horse owners keep their horses outdoors year round. Winter brings special considerations for these horses that are out day and night. As in any season the need for adequate shelter, food and water must be met. Our extreme climate can make this challenging. Let’s briefly explore some of these challenges, look for follow up articles for more specifics.
Basic shelter requirements are essential. A shelter should be at least a 3 sided structure that provides a break from wind and precipitation. It should be large enough to accomodate all horses that have access to it, taking the hierarchal habits of your horses into consideration.
Most horses will develop a winter coat sufficient for life outdoors. In the instance that your horse does not, or needs extra protection from the extreme elements, blanket with care. This is not an inexpensive option and requires additional labor. Be sure to purchase a quality blanket. The natural insulating ability of the horse’s own coat can be decreased when blanket wear causes the natural coat to lie flat, so be sure to groom frequently. If your horse has pasture mates you may find they will appreciate the blanket as a fantastic new toy.
From conventional wisdom we know that it is ideal for our horses to start the winter in good flesh. Some horses are better than others at retaining their weight through the winter. If your horse is an easy keeper you will make relatively few dietary changes, as a horse’s metabolism wains in winter months. You will still need to monitor the body condition of your horse, which is best done by feeling the ribs. Ideally you want to be able to feel the ribs but not see them. Fluffy winter hair coats or blankets make it difficult to guage changes in weight visually. If you have a horse that responds to the demands of a Michigan winter by losing weight, be proactive. The first place to make increases is in the amount or quality of hay you are feeding. Feeding quality hay enables a horse to produce the most body heat through fermentation and the digestive process. Make any changes to the horse’s grain ration over a period of about a week. Supplementation can also provide a boost for hard-keepers. Rice bran and corn oil are safe ways to supplement fat, ask your veterinarian for feeding reccomendations. Commercial products for building weight are also available. In herd situations be sure each horse is getting its share, if not, feed them seperately.
Providing temperate water is essential to stave off dehydration and subsequent digestive complications. The most sure way to do this is by placing a heater in the trough. Troughs that are black also absorb more of the sun’s warmth during the day. There are also methods of insulating water troughs ranging from burying it to building a unit around it.
There are officially about 8 weeks left of winter. By keeping in tune with your horses needs and welfare now, you will enter spring ready to ride.