Now that we have officially moved into spring, it's time to complete some essential tasks before we are thrust into the mayhem of foaling season, competition time and longer, busier days.
First up, let's look at the veterinary side of things. Prevention is ultimately better than cure, and vaccinations should be an essential feature of your annual health routine.
The principle of all vaccinations is to initiate a course of injections followed by 'booster' doses at various intervals, depending on the type of vaccine and the immunity provided.
Vet Kathy Enright, from Ballyhugh Veterinary Clinic, Gort, Co Galway, says the two most important vaccinations that all horses should receive are influenza and tetanus.
Equine influenza -- or flu -- is a highly contagious, viral disease of the respiratory system caused by different strains of influenza virus.
"A horse contracts the virus either by contact with an infected horse or indirectly by contaminated air or environment," says Ms Enright.
"Infected horses incubate the virus for only 1-3 days before developing symptoms, which is why outbreaks of influenza spread so rapidly."
Influenza symptoms include:
The disease can develop into life-threatening bronchitis or pneumonia. Often when horses recover from influenza they can be left in a debilitated state, making them more susceptible to secondary infections.
"Outbreaks of influenza are most common when large numbers of young horses are brought together in stressful conditions, for example at sales or shows," she says.
As the infecting strain of the virus tends to vary, vaccine manufacturers are constantly updating their vaccines to ensure full protection.
Most influenza vaccinations also contain the tetanus vaccine combined in a single injection.
Tetanus, often known as lockjaw, is caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani that is found in soil and horse faeces. It enters the body by an open wound or, in some cases, via the intestinal tract.
"Because it has an incubation period of 7-21 days, owners are often not aware that their horse has received a wound, or else thought it was minor or of no importance until their horse develops tetanus," says Ms Enright.
The signs of tetanus include:
"Approximately 90pc of unvaccinated horses that develop tetanus die. In the small number of horses that do recover, intensive veterinary treatment and nursing care is required for a period of about six weeks," warns the Ballyhugh vet.
Now is a good time for inspecting and repairing any damaged fencing and removing fallen branches and other winter debris. Check that electric wire is taut and replace any damaged sections.
Damage to water pipes and field water troughs is likely after the recent cold winter, so replace pipes, joiners and ballcocks where necessary and make sure the body of the water trough has survived the freeze-thaw cycle unscathed.
Water troughs should also be scrubbed out to remove the scum and algae that forms after weeks and months of disuse.
Make a note of areas that were prone to flooding during the winter so that drainage improvements can be made before next winter.
As soon as ground and weather conditions permit, harrow and roll fields to break up clods of soil and create a level surface for safe turnout.
Using soil testing, dung spreading and fertiliser application to achieve optimum grass growth were covered in detail in a recent article.
As the weather gets warmer, horses that have been stabled for the winter will be spending more time turned out in paddocks. The Irish Horse Welfare Trust suggests that this is an optimum time to 'spring clean' stables by removing all bedding and washing walls and floors with disinfectant. Regular cleaning like this will remove hardy worm eggs that can survive for many years within stables and to reduce mites, the intermediate host of tapeworms, thereby helping to reduce your horse's exposure to re-infection.
Pasture should not be over-stocked and ideally fields should contain no more than one or two horses per acre, as horses lower down the pecking order will be forced to graze the rough pasture where worm burdens will be higher.
Treatment for tapeworm is recommended every six months, with a treatment due in March to April. Control of tapeworm traditionally involved a double-dose of a pyrantel-based wormer, however in more recent years, praziquantel-based wormers that specifically target tapeworm have become available for use in horses.
Beware lush grass
One of the most common causes of laminitis in Ireland is sudden access to lush grass, so take care when your animals go out to spring paddocks. Often known as 'grass founder', this type of laminitis occurs when the animal gets into excessive amounts of lush forage before its system has had time to adapt.
Spring grass is often high in nutrients and grows rapidly, so grazing may need to be restricted at this time.
Rugging and repairs
Stabled horses have already begun to shed their winter coats and this will continue in the coming weeks. Aside from coating every inch of your clothing with a layer of loose hair, this serves as a reminder that the horses are preparing for summer.
Check your horse regularly to ensure he/she is not too hot.
You will need to reduce the number or weight of rugs as the temperatures rise, eventually removing rugs altogether. However, Ireland's changeable weather means that you may need to switch back to a heavier rug for intermittent frost and cold.
Stable and turnout rugs can be washed and repaired by numerous companies, with charges starting from €10/rug. Turnout rugs can be re-proofed by the same companies.
Once you get your (now unrecognisably clean) rugs back, store them in a clean and dry, rodent-proof box or tear-proof storage bag.