Getting Ready for Winter with Horses

We’ve almost come full circle here with the weather and our horses. Bill brought Valentine home in the dead of winter (28 degrees the night of February 13! Brrr!), experienced a gorgeous spring, survived a hot, relatively dry summer, and now it’s fall. Today, however, already feels like winter – we had our first frost last night and it’s supposed to be below freezing again tonight. So I guess it’s time to winterize around here.

What you need to do depends upon where you live. If we still lived in Arizona, we’d be celebrating right now, because it would finally be cool enough to ride! But around here, we’re dreading the cold and even more so, the MUD. We thought we were making progress with the mud pit outside the barn this summer, but as soon as it cooled off again, the mud came back. Yuck.

So here’s what we need to do, and what we probably actually will do:

It doesn’t get so very cold here. It’s often in the twenties and thirties at night, but usually warms up to the fifties during the day. Our horses are already doing the most important part of getting themselves ready: they are growing the most gorgeous, thick winter coats. They just look stunning, I have to say. All the sunburned summer hair has fallen out, and thick, velvety new hair has come in. They’re also very fortunate to both be all black, it attracts the heat very nicely. Lucky them! If your horse doesn’t grow a good winter coat, or if it’s really cold where you live, you should purchase a good blanket. I’m not sure why they call it a blanket, because it looks more like a coat, but that’s what it’s called. Good luck with this – I’m told that most horses hate them and do everything they can to get them off, from pulling on them with their teeth to rolling in the mud to having their horse friends help them pull them off. But in some climates, they really should be wearing one. Please, though, try to preserve their dignity by choosing one that doesn’t look too goofy.

Horse Blanket

For our part, the most important consideration for winter is the food supply. The grass in the pasture actually sticks around all winter, but becomes shorter and scarcer and not a good thing to rely on for winter forage. Our ultimate goal is to seed the entire pasture with cold-weather grass in the winter, but you need a tractor for that and we don’t have one yet. Hay also becomes harder and harder to come by as winter drags on. Last year, we had a panicky moment when we actually could not find any more hay (after paying $4.50 a bale for the hay we had last found). Luckily, we mentioned our dilemma to a friend whose mother had a barn full of “old” hay that she sold to us for $1.00 a bale. This year, we are planning ahead. We built a loft in our barn so we could store more hay, and have begun to fill it up. (A note on hay storage here: the biggest risk with stored hay is that it will develop mold. As you dispense hay to your horses every day, check each flake for signs of mold. The easiest method is with your nose – moldy hay smells bad. Never feed moldy hay. You should be checking hay for other stuff anyway – I’ve heard of everything from plastic bags to dead snakes being found in baled hay. Maybe you should be wearing gloves as you’re checking.)

We have also supplemented the hay supply with a round bale of hay, which is in the pasture for the horses to munch on whenever they want. Since they spend most of their time in the pasture, that’s a good place for a supply of hay. Ideally, any hay in the pasture should be protected from the weather. A “run-in shed” is a good thing for this purpose. It’s a three-sided shed that protects your hay – and your horses – from rain, wind, snow, whatever. We have an old barn in our pasture that we intend to use for this purpose, but it needs some serious maintenance right now. So the hay is parked beneath a large evergreen tree.

Another important note about winter feeding is that your horses will need to eat more to keep their weight up. Keeping a body warm in cold weather takes a lot of energy. We give our horses more oats in the winter – they’re higher in calories than hay.

Although your horse won’t need as much water in the winter as in the summer, a supply of clean, fresh water is still just as important. If you live somewhere where water might freeze, you need to invest in a bucket or trough de-icer. You might consider one even if it doesn’t freeze – horses don’t like to drink icy cold water and may avoid drinking if they don’t find the water to their liking.

As for protection from the elements, most of our horse friends laugh at us because we don’t just leave our horses out in the pasture all the time. They say that horses are just fine out in the cold, and I’m sure they’re at least partly right. But we have a nice barn with lots of room, so every night we bring them in to sleep in their stalls, and if it’s cold and/or windy, we close the exterior windows to keep the drafts out. But that’s up to you.

The biggest winter problem for us, though, is the mud. We battled it with straw this summer, piling it on and mixing it in (in Arizona, we’d have adobe by now). The next step is a large load of sand, to help the clay drain better. The best thing to do would be to shovel out the mud, lay down a layer of stone, then gravel, then sand and put the original soil back, but again we’d need a tractor. So we’ll try out the sand and see if it helps.

You’ll be hearing a lot about mud again this winter, I’m sure.

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