By Howard J. Cormier, Regional Equine AgentLSU AgCenter
What would you have done differently had you known we were in for one of the worst winter weather events in decades? How can we prepare for the next cold weather event? First of all, your horses need protection from the elements during inclement weather. Horses can get by if they are warm and dry, but cold and wet conditions result in shivering, stress and greater susceptibility to disease. The jury is still out on whether blanketing is the final answer. Some say that heavy blankets result in the hair coat being mashed down, with the resultant loss of warm air trapped in the hair coat. Horses that are conditioned to being outside will have heavier, thicker hair coats. If a horse has been kept in a stall, blanketing might be necessary, but the majority of horses kept outside will fare pretty well if left to the conditions they typically live under. The exception is rain and cold. No matter how thick the hair coat, they cannot be comfortable if they get wet. That means you must have some type of shed for them to get out of the weather. Consider that lead mare that drives other horses out into the cold. You might need to stall her separately from other horses. Shed improvements don’t have to be fancy, but they must protect horses from cold, rain and a north wind.
If you plan to make any barn improvements, give some thought to how you will provide adequate space for the number of horses you have. If horses are stalled, can you clean them out daily? Also, give some thought to how you can drain water pipes before they freeze and burst. Put in a low faucet that will allow good drainage of water in the system. A water hose leading away from a faucet to a lower elevation can also siphon water out of the lines to reduce freezing, but you must have an opening on the high side to allow air in as the water drains out.
What about access to drinking water? With several days of subfreezing weather, horses sometimes will drink much less. Eating dry pastures, or dry hay, can lead to colic and impaction problems. Ponds can provide water, but horses that aren’t accustomed to drinking from ponds or ditches will not do so until they get very thirsty. They also might not know how to break even thin sheets of ice in water troughs. So, keep that in mind.
Nutrition is important in cold weather. Ryegrass provides good nutrition, but if temperatures are subfreezing, horse’s hooves will do much damage to a stand, especially if the ground is wet. Some varieties, such as Prine and Nelson, have better cold tolerance than older varieties like Gulf because they were developed with colder climates in mind. It is not uncommon for entire stands of ryegrass to be killed by freezing temperatures, so variety selection is important.
Good hay is critical to keep the gut functioning normally, especially if access to grass is limited. Avoid making big changes to the diet of horses when short periods of cold weather are imminent. Corn can provide extra calories, but most experts agree that good hay is the most important feedstuff for a balanced diet that is also safe. Grain overload can lead to problems that will linger long after the cold weather has subsided.
What about those on an exercise or training regime? How can they maintain their productivity? Most would agree that riding or training in subfreezing temperatures with a strong north wind and a chill factor in the teens does little to make the horse better. Yes, you can say that you rode, but toward what end? It might be better to wait until the weather conditions, and the frame of mind of the horse, is more favorable for what you want to accomplish.