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What are Winter Hazards?

Horses are generally relatively tolerant to the cold, however, foals, senior horses, and horses that are suffering from a disease may be more susceptible to chills, which can lead to higher rates of infection or hypothermia. Even healthy adult horses can develop complications if they are given inadequate food, shelter, or water during the winter months, and ice can make slips and falls more commonplace. Protecting your horse from winter hazards takes a little foresight and attention but is well worth the time and effort.

Although horses can generally handle the colder weather quite well, winter can present some unique challenges in equine care, and extra caution must be taken to prevent diseases and injuries from happening.

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Symptoms of Winter Hazards in Horses

Several disorders can be related to the cold, but the three most common include: 

  • Colic - Horses can be more prone to developing colic in the winter as well, which can lead to symptoms like depression, loss of appetite and weight, and severe abdominal pain.
  • Dehydration - Several signs can indicate dehydration such as loss of elasticity in the skin, red eyes or gums, and depression. Your veterinarian will often find high levels of protein in the blood of dehydrated horses.
  • Lameness (due to slips and falls) - With front limb lameness, the horse will often lift its head higher when stepping on the distressed limb, and drop it when putting the weight on the sound limb. When a hind limb or foot is involved, the horse will lift its hip on the lame side to avoid putting as much weight on it and will allow the other side to dip a little bit to compensate. 

Types

Although horses are usually quite tolerant of cold conditions there are a few groups of horses that require special consideration during the winter months:

  • Foals - Younger foals do not have the same amounts of body fat that more mature horses have so extra consideration should be taken to ensure that they do not get wet or chilled; foals are also playful animals by nature which can predispose them to slips and falls
  • Illness - Horses that are ill may experience symptoms as diverse as fevers, respiratory issues, or weight loss, all of which can predispose them to chilling
  • Recently moved - Horses that have recently moved to the area from warmer climates may find it difficult to acclimate, making them more susceptible to getting chilled
  • Seniors - Senior horse care in the winter can be complicated by lowered fat stores, lack of mobility, and compromised digestive systems

Causes of Winter Hazards in Horses

  • Dehydration - Water that is in unheated buckets or troughs often freeze in colder weather, preventing horses from getting sufficient hydration
  • Diet and nutrition - Horses that do not receive enough calories in their diets to combat the cold weather may lose weight, making them more susceptible to issues that are related to the cold
  • Improper grooming and hoof care - Proper grooming is crucial to prevent ice and mud from collecting on the coat and skin and under the hooves; hooves that are not properly cleaned and maintained can also develop cracks and infections
  • Inadequate shelter - Lack of windbreaks and rain shelters may increase illnesses in winter months, and shelters with insufficient air flow and ventilation can retain moisture, increasing the chance that chills and frostbite will develop as well as encouraging the growth of dangerous molds and mildews

Diagnosis of Winter Hazards in Horses

As disorders related to cold are uncommon in equines, most veterinarians will want to evaluate the overall health of the patient to establish if any underlying conditions may be exacerbating the situation. The examiner will perform a full inspection of the animal, recording the vital signs such as the horse’s temperature and heart rate as well as performing standard blood tests like a biochemical profile and complete blood count. 

These evaluations will help to confirm the physical condition of the patient as well as checking for any imbalances, toxins, or infections that may be present. The results from these tests, combined with a urinalysis, helps the veterinarian assess the functioning of the kidneys and the liver as well as gaining valuable information for developing the most appropriate treatment plan. The physical evaluation will also alert the examining doctor to any muscle or weight loss, damage to the hooves, or any spots that are affected by frostbite.

Treatment of Winter Hazards in Horses

The treatment for the hazards of winter will depend entirely on which hazard has befallen your horse. Some of the more common treatment plans include the following: 

Adequate Shelter

Horses require adequate shelter from both the wind and the rain to maintain their resistance to cold. A three-sided, covered shelter is recommended for horses that are kept outside. It is critical to ensure that any enclosure has adequate ventilation as inadequate ventilation can raise the humidity, increasing the chances of getting chilled.

Changes in Diet

Horses in cold weather will require approximately ten to fifteen percent more maintenance calories for every ten-degree drop under 30 degrees Fahrenheit. The increased calorie requirement is generally offset by adding more hay, not grain, or by adding specialized pelleted food. Pellet food is also helpful for horses with with malformed or damaged teeth as it is often easier to chew.   

Medications

Horses with infections or infestations will be given the proper medication to fight the invader, and anti-inflammatories may be recommended to reduce any pain and swelling that may be present. 

Sufficient Hydration

It is crucial to ensure that sufficient water is available at all times, and in the winter that means either providing heated tubs and troughs or breaking any ice that forms every few hours.

Recovery of Winter Hazards in Horses

Exercise during the winter months can be challenging but is necessary to ensure that the horse’s condition is maintained. Although exercise should be kept indoors or postponed when the weather is truly frigid, they can withstand much lower temperatures than we can. Check the horse’s feet before exercising to make sure that any packed snow or ice balls are removed, and be sure to give the animal an extended time to warm up to avoid cramping or torn muscles. It is also essential to give your horse plenty of time to cool down slowly at the end of the activity as well, particularly if the exercise was strenuous enough to cause the horse to sweat.