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Happy, Warm, and On Weight

Published: 2/3/2011
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By Maddy B. Gray

In my travels and at my own barn, I have been considering winter strategies for keeping weight on and keeping horses happy and warm.
Many friends blanket their horses. Some even have several blankets for cold and colder temperatures.
Others tweak their horses' diet, adding more hay, more grain, and warm mashes.
I rarely blanket. Shea and Brooke have your typical quarterhorse coat and they get blankets when it's below zero or so. My chubby pony, Peppermint, with a coat as dense as a polar bear's, never gets a rug.
I add small portions of warm, soaked alfalfa cubes to the morning and afternoon feed. And they all get more hay in the winter, especially at night.

We asked Dr. Rachel Flaherty of Maine Equine Associates, about these strategies. Here are her thoughts:

  Every animal is different. Making a blanket statement about how to treat every animal as to winter care is like trying to train each one the same way.
They all have individual physiologic needs that, of course, are often linked to breed, age, health, their jobs, housing, the area they live, as well as their unique nutritional needs.
I am big on blanketing . . most other vets will tell you horses don't need to be blanketed. I think that it is a good thing to do with certain horses as long as people are diligent about the temperature at which they blanket, making sure the horse isn't sweating underneath, and that they are removing the blanket often to check the animal's weight and
to make sure they aren't developing any sores or rubs.

It is very helpful for hard-keepers and older horses who would come out of winter thin or would need to be maintained on massive amounts of grain in order to maintain their weight.

I also think it encourages some horses to spend more time outside since the blanket can break the wind and keep the animal dry. I always felt better about putting my thoroughbred out on a cold rainy day if he had a waterproof sheet on.


Of course, feeding more is important, too. Horses generate heat to keep warm as they chew and digest their hay. It also helps to keep them stay occupied during the long, boring winter days.

I am also a proponent of feeding them something warm every day . . whether it's adding warm water to their grain, a bran mash, or feeding a warm beet pulp mash.
Also, studies have shown that horses tend to drink more water when it is warm, which can help prevent impactions.


There are many options of things to add to the diet, as well, to help maintain weight, rather than just feeding more grain (although that can be a good thing for some horses). Beet pulp (my favorite: a great source of digestible fiber), hay stretcher pellets, rice bran, and rice bran oil, among others.

Dr. Beth McEvoy, a vet for the state of Maine, sent these additional recommendations for horse safety in winter conditions. They were issued by Dr. Pamela Wilkins is the Chief of Staff of the Large Animal Clinic at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

* Provide warm water. Provide warm water at least twice a day or use a water-heating unit if the horses drink from a common water source in a field. Make sure the heating units are working properly and no stray voltage is leaking into the water. If horses must drink cold water, they may not drink enough, which could contribute to impaction colic and dehydration.

* Provide shelter. Horses are generally well protected from the cold through the insulating hair coat and other aspects of their physiology. However, they need protection in extreme winter conditions of cold, blizzard, or wind. The insulating hair coat becomes significantly less effective when wet, and horses should be sheltered from the cold when freezing rain is combined with cold weather.

* Make food available. Be sure their food source is free of snow and ice. Increase the availability and proportion of hay in the diet during cold weather. Additional fiber for the hindgut to digest increases their ability to stay warm by fueling the "internal furnace" that is constantly fermenting their food.

* Protect older horses. Winter is harder on older horses. Hazards include slipping and being unable to get up and insufficient body fat to withstand the cold due to poor dentition or other issues. Older horses may require much more care than younger horses in winter.

* Protect horses not acclimated to the cold. While generally horses are well-equipped for cold, horses that have been competing and/or recently retired may not have the kind of coat they need. It may take a couple of winters for them to adapt and grow a good winter coat. Keep these horses in a barn during extreme cold weather. These horses may need to wear insulating winter blankets.

View Reader Comments:

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2/3/2011 Lura
I always liked taking a tipid gal. of water with a couple tablespoons of maolasses out to my mare the winter she was pregnant and sit and have a cup of tea with her.. the molasses water remained part of her winter diet.. but she spent more of her evenings with her foal the following winter.. and a good (hrse) salt blck to help encourage drinking more to keep her from dehydration. a little straw added to the hay kept the bedding in place for the night. <3
2/3/2011 Vince Mahany
This works. Rachel helped us maintain an older, retired standard bred. The blanket, beets, rice oil,vitamins, electrolyte supplement and extra grain kept that gent in nice condition over the winter. The heated water buckets are great for helping the animals water intake. Thanks for the update Maddy
2/3/2011 Missy L
I liked the part about blankets breaking wind :-) Never seen/heard/smelled that one! Learn something new every day.
2/4/2011 Kathie
Leave it to Missy to catch that one!
2/4/2011 Darlene
I have 3 minis and they all have coats like little polar bears...and are little porkers! Have to watch the starch and carbs on them , especially the ole guy he s 27yrs old and runs with the two fillies that are yearlings...the old gelding rules!I feed them safe choice , dengi gold, and keep hay down all the time ...WARM water 3x a day ...heated buckets...their stalls have a foot of shavings , they can run in and out ...I close them in on real cold nights only because it makes me feel better.....they like to run in and out!

   
"Nothing on four legs is quicker than a horse heading back to the barn" - Pamela C. Biddle/Joel E. Fishman