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by Kim and Kari Baker

Winter care of horse and farm

Mirror KB Equine Article Series

Outwit Old Man Winter

By Kim and Kari Baker



No matter where you might live, winter is a challenge. While you may be partial to winter weather and the recreational pleasures it provides, you probably donít appreciate the many problems it creates for you at the barn.

Preparing for the coming blast of winter, in advance, may well avert extra work and frustration for you later on. In fact, though it may seem unwarranted at the moment; late summer or autumn is the ideal time to brace yourself, and your horse, for the wintry months ahead.

Depending on where you live, a conflict with Old Man Winter will occur in the form of snow, rain, wind, and ice, or any combination of the afore mentioned elements. While there are things you can do to prepare your horse physically for winter your principal chore will be to prepare his living quarters.

Taming the Wind

Gusty winter winds intensify the many possible hazards that a pasture kept horse is exposed to. When allowed to grow a thick winter coat, a horse is in general, promised an effective defense against bitter temperatures. However, should a strong wind accompany the sub-zero degree weather, that protection will assuredly be compromised. To this, add rain or snow, and your horseís proficient heating and insulation system will be drastically reduced.

Horses kept on pasture benefit from some form of extra protection. This may either be in the shape of a simple run in shed, or even the well planned windbreak of a dense stand of evergreen trees. If youíre going to rely on a run in shed to protect your horses, be sure that itís constructed large enough to safely accommodate all of the horses in the pasture. Also make sure that the shed entrance is sized and situated so that there is ample room for the horses to pass through freely. Horses on the bottom of the pecking order will need to have plenty of room to escape bullies.

Despite the fact that a strong fortress of trees is certainly capable of providing your horse with adequate protection from the elements, it might also prove deadly. Sizeable branches often break off in powerful gusts of wind, and aged or weakened trees may snap or blow over. Damage and loss due to toppled trees can be particularly heart wrenching should it involve the life and well-being of your horse.

Although itís impossible to wholly prevent such occurrences, providing your horse with a healthy stand of trees may narrow the odds. Keep pasture trees pruned of all deadwood, and remove entire trees that have died. Moreover, if a badly diseased tree has lost its resiliency to bend with the wind, just as a dead tree it has no place in your pasture. Cut it down before it falls on its own.

Wind blown trees arenít the only threat to your pasture kept horse. In fact, anything that is in or near your pasture that is lightweight enough to be born on the wind should be considered a potential hazard. Be sure to secure all objects such as hay tarps, and feed buckets, as well as loose roofing on your run in shed. While they may not directly injure your horse, any such article tumbling through his pasture in a gusty wind may frighten him enough to cause him to go through a fence.

Water, in either the liquid or frozen form, is a big concern in many parts of the country. The source, be it from too much rain or that of melting snow, the end result is the same. Wading pools everywhere. Particularly at the pasture gate, along well-used paths between the house and barn, around pasture water tanks, and possibly even inside your horseís run in shed.

Depending on how hollow these high traffic areas have managed to wear, will determine how best to resolve the problem. If you have an extensive problem with large pooling of water, speak to a contractor. Heíll assist you with a plan to not only build-up the low problem spots, but also divert the run off in a controlled direction.

If you have the skills, equipment, and knowledge, you might take on the challenge yourself. However, be aware that just dumping a load of fill dirt in front of the gate will not likely solve your puddle dilemma, at least not for any great length of time.

No matter how well youíve planned ahead there will assuredly be a few puddles to deal with. If youíre nighttime lows regularly dip below freezing these puddles will soon be converted into challenging skating rinks.

To cut down on injuries due to skating mishaps, both equine and human, store a supply of clay based cat litter, course salt, or ashes from your fireplace to be scattered over the surface of the ice. If you have barn kept horses, the soiled bedding from your horsesí stalls will also work quite nicely.

These all adhere well to the ice providing adequate traction. In spite of this, the salt and to a lesser degree the ash, have the potential to damage the soil. If you choose to use either of these two methods, use them sparingly.

Like puddles, pasture water tanks, as well as stall water buckets will ice over in sub freezing weather. Here again, depending on where you live will determine whether or not youíll need to invest in a water heater of some sort.

There are four styles of pasture stock tank heaters available on the market, i.e. float, submersible, side mount, or a drain plug de-icer. Look for them at your local feed and tack or hardware stores. In addition youíll find a surplus of tank heaters via the Internet. All work equally well, but due to their differences you may opt for one over others.

For safety sake, the float style heater doesnít quite measure up to the other three when used in stock tanks constructed of plastic. Should the elements of a float heater accidentally come in to direct contact with the wall of a plastic tank wall, above the water level, the element is hot enough to not only melt your tank, but also literally set it on fire. Nevertheless, special guards can be purchased for use on float style heaters, making them much safer to use.

No matter which type of stock tank heater you choose to use, keep a watchful eye on your horseís water consumption. If it doesnít appear as though he is drinking it might be due to a short in the heater causing an electric shock each time your horse goes to take a drink.

To avoid this problem, a tank heater may be plugged into a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI). However, unlike a circuit breaker or fuse, a GFCI is activated by very small measures of electricity. For this reason youíll still have to check your water tank daily to be sure that the GFCI hasnít tripped, allowing the tank to freeze over.

There are also several freeze proof water buckets available for the stall kept horse. Heating elements are actually built directly into the wall of the buckets and are thermostat controlled to keep the water between 40 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Another option would be to use a drop-in bucket heater. While these must not be used as a standard water heater to keep a horseís water from freezing, theyíre great if you simply need to warm up a bucket of water for a brief period of time.

Barn Basics

Whilst weíre still on the subject of water, and its knack for freezing, any above ground water pipes should be insulated with wrap around insulation or heat tape. If your water line were to freeze up, youíll have to transport water to your horse from another source, at least until the days begin to warm up again, and then you just might find your barn sprouting geysers everywhere. Check barn gutters and drains as well. Youíll want to make sure that theyíre free of debris and will continue to function properly throughout the winter months.

Test barn lights and plugs to be sure theyíre all in working order. Mice are notorious for gnawing on exposed electrical wires so where itís feasible, actually inspect for frayed wires. Also, dust the cobwebs away from stall light bulbs. With the coming shorter winter days youíll probably be making more use of the lights for longer periods of time. This may all seem an un-necessary and tedious chore, but itís always better to avert a potential fire when possible.

Barn doors and stall gates tend to become stiff and sluggish in cold weather. A squirt of lubricating oil on all door hinges will keep them moving free, even on the coldest winter day. A silicone spray can be used on sliding stall door systems.

Storage Savvy

Dig out your carefully stored blankets, sheets, and turnout rugs and service them as needed. With any luck you took care of washing and mending them before you stored them away for the summer, but if not itís time to quit procrastinating. Due to shrinkage from washing, or growth of the horse, you might want to make double sure that the blankets still fit the horses that will require them.

Next go through your equine medicine chest to make sure it is adequately complete and that all drugs, such as antibiotics, have not passed their expiration date. If so, discard them and replace them with new ones. Store unstable drugs in a dark cool place, such as a refrigerator, where they will not be exposed to freezing temperatures. On the other hand, keep creamlike medications and ointments in a heated tack room or inside your house where they will maintain a pliable consistency.

Just because itís winter doesnít mean that fence boards wonít get broken, you certainly know horses better than that! Be sure you have a sufficient supply of boards, posts, nails, bolts, and screws, or any other barn item that may need replacing or fixing. Otherwise you just might have to make an emergency run into town on a slippery wintry road in the middle of a snowstorm only to purchase a new gate latch or eyebolt.

If youíve got the room, itís much more economical to stock up on both hay and feed rather than purchase it regularly throughout the winter. The catch here is adequate space and proper storage.

In an effort to prevent mold spores from growing, both feed and hay must be stored where they are able to stay cool and dry. Bagged feed can be stacked on pallets in your feed room. However, barn vermin are capable of gnawing right through the bags so a better option would be to transfer the feed into rodent proof containers.

While hay should be stored undercover, itís best to stack it in a separate barn or shed from where horses are housed. There are two reasons for this. First of all, hay a highly combustible resource, brings with it the inherent risk of fire. Secondly, major equine respiratory problems have been traced to hay, itís chaff, dust and mold spores. For the same above two reasons, stall bedding, be it wood shavings or straw, should also be stockpiled under a separate roof than where your horse is stalled.

Storing your hay and stall bedding in a separate building doesnít mean that it has to be terribly inconvenient. A fifty-foot difference isnít an enormous jaunt, yet it could easily make a substantial difference in the lives of your horses.

Itís not necessary to stack hay in a single location either. In fact, a better approach would be to store it in individual covered hay sheds, situated in close proximity to each of your pastures. This would not only make your feeding chores a whole lot easier, but should one stack of hay spontaneously combust, youíd not lose your entire hay supply.

Youíll find that winter horse care will prove to be much less of a challenge if you prepare for Old Man Winterís annual visit well in advance, rather than wait until the temperatures begin to plummet and the snow commences to blow.


Preparing for Winter Checklist

Prune, trim and remove dead branches and trees from wind breaks

Batten down anything capable of being carried in the wind

Check equine medicine chest and re-supply commonly used items. Be sure drug expiration dates are current. Store appropriately.

Lubricate all barn doors as well as stall and pasture gates.

Insulate above ground water pipes and make sure barn drains and gutters are free of debris.

Test barn lights, inspect wiring and sweep cobwebs from around stall light fixtures.

Dig out and assess stored winter stable blankets, sheets and hoods.

Stock up on farm supplies, i.e. fence equipment, nails, bolts, heated water buckets, stock tank heaters, etc.

Purchase an adequate supply of hay and feed. Stack appropriately where feed and hay will remain dry. Feed should be stored in rodent proof containers

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