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Sunday 4 December 2016

Priming your animals for the chilly winter months

Find time to get everything in order to keep horses in top condition

Published 11/10/2011 | 05:00

As leaves start to blow off the trees, now is a good time to start thinking about your preparation for the winter months. While we are all fervently hoping that we don't get a repeat of the icy conditions of the past two years, we still need to prepare for the possibility of another big freeze.

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Regardless of whether we get a mild or harsh winter, some groundwork now will save time, money and headaches if we do get sub-zero temperatures.

As horse owners, our priority is to ensure that our animals get through the winter without becoming sick or injured and to maintain their body condition through the harshest season.

Illness, injury and lack of condition result in a horse under performing and higher financial costs for the owner.

As humans, we are often guilty of believing that if we are cold, then our horses must be too. However, this is not necessarily true. Horses have been designed by nature to fend for themselves and cope with living outdoors in changing seasons and harsh weather conditions.

The long, dense winter coat that horses are currently growing is an extremely effective thermal layer that traps warm air close to the body. Additional oils secreted by the skin create a water-repellent layer to the coat that allows water to run off the body. Manes and tails also grow longer, providing extra protection from the rain and cold.

Horses wintered outside move about to keep warm and take shelter wherever nature provides it, be it a high hedge or a sheltered hollow in the field.

However, a horse's natural defences against inclement weather are often taken away when they are groomed, clipped, trimmed and confined to a small area or stable in order to work or compete for his owner. Since we have interfered with his natural ability to cope, it is therefore our responsibility to ensure that the horse is protected from the elements.

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If you clip a horse to remove part or all of its coat, you will need to compensate for the loss of hair by providing a rug. The type and weight of rug to be used will be dictated by the type of clip, whether the horse will live indoors or outdoors, whether the horse is a good or poor doer, how much feed he will be fed and the prevailing temperature each day.

One of the best ways to check whether a horse is cold is to hold your hand at the base of his ear. If the base of the ear is warm, then it is likely that he is fine. However, if the base of his ear is cold, he could be the same all over. The rugs will need to be changed accordingly.

Remember that while a horse out in the field can walk about to warm himself up, a horse confined to a 12ft x 12ft stable does not have the same freedom so he may be colder than the horse outside. All horses will benefit from a few hours turnout each day. Fresh air, interaction with other horses and the chance to stretch its legs is a welcome break from stabled life and will often result in a healthier horse.

However, outdoor life can also mean wind and rain -- the horse's least favourite weather conditions. Shelter from wind and rain can be provided by a purpose-built field shelter or a natural shelter such as a high hedge or a sheltered wooded area.

If your preference is for a manmade field shelter, make sure it is big enough to house the number of horses using the field and has a wide enough entrance that bully horses cannot corner the more submissive animals.

With low temperatures comes the inevitable freezing of water. Now is a good time to look at your water pipes -- both in the stable yard and in the fields -- and decide if insulating them would prevent burst pipes and leaks during winter.

To prevent water troughs freezing overnight, a football or child's ball can be left floating in the water trough. However very low temperatures will make even this measure ineffective and you may have to resort to using kettles of boiling water to thaw out the ice.

Water is of critical importance to horses and even more so if they are being fed a dry forage, such as hay, throughout the winter. The risk of impaction colic is increased when horses are fed dry forage and their water intake is reduced in colder weather.

Scientific studies have shown that if during cold weather horses have only warm water available, they will drink a greater volume per day than if they have only icy cold water available. However, if they have a choice between warm and icy water simultaneously, they drink almost exclusively from the icy water and drink less volume than if they have only warm water available. So, in order to increase your horse's water consumption, offer warm water.

When it comes to feeding during cold weather, a high fibre diet is essential. As the horse digests high fibre food such as hay or haylage, the digestive process generates heat. This heat is used to warm the horse up from the inside out.

Forage, or hay, should make up the largest portion of the horse's diet in winter, equating to 1-2pc of its body weight each day. For example, a 500kg horse needs around 5-10kg of hay a day, depending on his body condition and ability to hold that condition.

Horses that lose condition easily -- those that are competing, youngstock and broodmares -- will require additional energy for growth. Their diet can be supplemented using concentrate feed tailored to their needs. Young, growing animals and broodmares will require a higher protein level in their feed than older, mature horses.

Your choice of concentrate feed, be it straights or compound mixes, will be dictated by the individual horse's requirements and your own preference. For example, some hunting horses may be fed oats and a balancer nut, while others may be fed a compound ration.

Preparation for winter should also include a complete clear out and thorough check of the feed area to ensure that all feed bins are clean and rodent-proof.

Wiring in the yard should be checked and faulty equipment repaired or replaced to prevent any fire hazard. Good lighting is essential to make life easier on long, dark evenings.

A supply of salt is a good investment on any yard to spread on icy patches and avoid nasty accidents that could result in falls and injuries to both man and beast.

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