February 18, 2020
With the unprecedented winter storms hitting states that are not used to all of this snow, we understand how hard it may be to care for your horse during this time. Here are some tips on how to help care for your horse, even if you are unable to get access to colder weather horse care products.
To start, there are a few things to consider when dangerous cold weather rolls in - keeping your horse watered, fed, and at a safe body temperature. Prioritize these three things and work with your vet at any signs of trouble.
How to keep your horse's water from freezing
There are two main challenges in dangerously cold weather: 1) keeping the water flowing, and 2) keeping it from freezing.
One way to prevent frozen pipes is to move your barn's compost to cover the ground surrounding pipes. Where spigots pop up and where waterlines flow into wash racks and the barn, pile up compost. At least a few feet thick if you can. The compost insulation may allow water to remain unfrozen underground and as it reaches the spout.
Keep pipes, sinks, and fixtures from dripping. Remove hoses from any spigots, so any drips don't freeze the hose solid.
When pipes are questionable or starting to freeze, verify with a plumber that the best option is to turn off the water at the primary source. No water is often better than a burst pipe flooding your barn.
If there is no water available, it's time to get creative. Verify with your vet that stream or pond water in your area is safe for your horses. You may be smashing ice and hauling water buckets.
Network to find a neighbor that might have a working well. Talk to your friends and neighbors, horse show organizations, clubs, local social media groups, and every channel you can think of.
Image courtesy of Corro
How to protect the water that you do have
Find ways to insulate your horse's water buckets. Some tubs include safe built-in heaters. Drop-in bucket heaters are another option. Use this style when you can supervise it. A nosy horse can interfere with drop-in heaters or pull it out.
Wrap your horse's buckets with any insulation you can find. Creative lashing with bailing twine and duct tape, the staples of any barn, will secure scarves, Styrofoam, or padding.
If your horse will drink from a smaller opening, cover the top of the bucket around the edges, leaving a space for your horse.
You will need to smash ice often. Don't discard the ice on the ground; save it instead. You may be able to bring it indoors to melt if needed.
Monitor your horse's hydration and helping him stay hydrated
Frequently check your horse's hydration by feeling his gums. Running your finger between his upper lip and gums, well above his teeth, is the best measure. A hydrated horse will have slippery and slick gums. A dehydrated horse will have sticky or dry gums. Call your veterinarian if you find this.
The skin tent test, performed by pulling a tab of skin away and watching it snap back, is unreliable to monitor for hydration. Older horses naturally lose elasticity in their skin, and take longer to snap back.
Help your horse drink as much as possible. Add water to his fortified feeds. Soaking your horse's hay is another way to encourage hydration, and only if there is zero chance of that soaked hay freezing into hay-cicles as your horse eats.
What doesn't work is relying on your horse to eat snow for hydration. The energy needed for a horse to eat snow far outweighs the energy received from the snow.
Talk to your vet about giving electrolytes to stimulate your horse's thirst. Paste electrolytes are best in an emergency to guarantee proper dosing. Adding electrolytes to water might create an unfamiliar taste and discourage drinking.
Image courtesy of Corro.
Help your horse stay warm
There is no truth to checking to see if your horse is cold by feeling his ears. This is subjective! If your hands are frozen from smashing ice, their ears may feel warm to you. Your hands could also be toasty warm from thick gloves, resulting in your horse's ears feeling cool.
Use a thermometer to monitor your horse's internal body temperature. A dip below 98º or lower than usual requires a call to your veterinarian. Horses may shiver; this is a natural response and a red flag. It's also not comfortable to shiver.
Layer up the blankets. While adding blankets does compress a horse's natural winter coat, you are also adding a layer to make up for this. Check your horse frequently for sweat under the blankets if you are using more than usual.
If you don't have warmer blankets, you can use human blankets and quilts to put underneath your heaviest horse blanket. There's no shame in getting scrappy, just make sure these items are secure so that they don't slip or get stuck somewhere that could cause injury.
Letting horses stay huddled together outside is often better than separating them inside. Shelters are ideal for outside situations to allow your horses to get a break from wind and precipitation. They will use it if they need to.
Slow feed forage continuously. Warm your horse from the inside using the power of the hind gut. As hay ferments in the digestive track, your horse will stay warmer.
Use slow-feeding hay nets. Hang several for overnight situations to ensure there will still be some in the morning.
Image courtesy of Corro
Watch out for colic
Lousy weather, paired with dehydration and less movement, can lead to colic. It's your job to do the best you can and monitor your horse's health throughout the day. Your vet is only a phone call away to answer any questions.
Monitor your horse's vital signs. Check on his temperature, pulse, and respiration at least twice daily during extreme conditions. An increase in heart rate and respirations indicate discomfort and can warn you of colic before he starts to show you.
Keep tabs on those gums! A dehydrated horse will be uncomfortable. Dehydration is also a factor in some types of colic, like impactions. You may even notice manure that is drier than normal or has smaller fecal balls than usual.
Allow your horse to move his body safely. Turnout is beneficial and safer when his paddock is not icy. Snow may pack into his hooves, creating unstable horseshoes. Snowballs in the hooves put your horse at risk of injuries from a twisted lower leg. Silly horses may fare better with a hand walk.
Keep up your horse's grooming routine. Regular grooming is beneficial for your horse's body and soul. You will find subtle hints about how they are feeling when you are grooming them.
Image courtesy of Corro
Tips to prepare for future cold weather emergencies
While this may not help you as you're currently managing your horse's care during this scary, cold event, there are a few things you can do for future cold weather events to further protect your horse, including: