Fall Foresight: Seasonal Preventive Horse Care

Autumn is the time for preventive horse health care and winterizing equine facilities

As you put away your warm-weather clothes in preparation for the cooler days ahead, you also need to be taking steps to prepare your barn and meet your horse’s needs before the weather turns bad. Check off this list of must-do tasks when putting your preparations in place.

1. Check your water system and heater

Ample water intake is essential for normal bodily and digestive functions and to reduce the risk of impaction colic, particularly in winter. The average horse needs to take in 5 to 10 gallons of water per day in cold climates, says Holly J. Helbig, DVM, of Hawthorne Veterinary Clinic, in Dublin, Ohio.

“Your horse consumes the maximum amount of water when it’s lukewarm,” she says. “Research shows that horses drink about 40% less water when it’s close to a frozen state. One option is to use heated water buckets that are easy to hang and relatively inexpensive compared to installing automatic waterers or tank heaters. If your horses live outside in the winter, a heated water tank is an excellent option but (like buckets) should be cleaned on a regular basis. The key to ensuring available water in the winter is to start early and be prepared.”

She urges property owners to check wiring and plumbing in the fall by giving everything a test run. “You don’t want to be stuck in the cold and snow trying to provide adequate water to your horses,” she says. “I’ve been there, hauling water from a house bathtub down to the barn … it’s not fun.”

Also remember to unhook your hoses from water spigots before freezing temps hit. If your farm doesn’t have a frost-free hydrant that drops below ground-freezing levels, consider having one or more plumbed into your system.

2. Care for your equipment properly

Don’t forget to perform routine maintenance on your tractors, trailers, and hauling vehicles prior to winter so they work efficiently when needed most (e.g., for a midwinter veterinary emergency or when access ways need clearing).

3. Acquire and store hay

You’ll want to put up sufficient hay to accommodate all your horses until the next year’s first cutting becomes available.

“Horses have very small stomachs—a 2-4-gallon capacity—in proportion to their overall size,” explains Helbig. “They continuously release gastric acid unlike humans, who only release gastric acid when they are hungry or eating. Due to this dynamic, horses do best when fed free-choice hay if not fighting obesity. A mature horse eats 2-2.5% of its body weight a day, equivalent to 20-25 pounds of hay for a 1,000-pound horse.”

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