It’s been a beautiful autumn so far, but it won’t be long before winter sets in – and with the weather still favorable, now is the best time to prepare for those long, cold days ahead.

One morning last week was cold enough to turn the water a bit “slushy” – a reminder to set up the heat lamp and get the heated water buckets ready. We’ve replaced the outside faucet with a frost-free water hydrant and will plug in the heated hoses and bucket waterers to make sure they’re still working. Rubber buckets are sturdy, and we’ve found they last longer than plastic ones, which will crack or chip if they are banged on the ground in cold weather to break up any ice.

Outside waterers and troughs should be easily accessible during winter. If there are muddy or wet areas around them, it’s time to install adequate drainage and fill in with crushed gravel or other material to prevent your horse from slipping and falling. Walkways to and from the barn should be treated in the same way to prevent injuries.

It’s important to ensure your horse has plenty of ice-free water to drink during winter, whether in a heated watering trough or heated bucket. If horses have to break through ice, attempt to drink from icy water sources or even eat snow, they will not consume enough water to process and digest the hay or roughage that keeps them warm and in good condition throughout winter.

If you blanket your horses, now is the time to get them out of storage and ready to use. Hopefully you cleaned the blanket before storing it; if not, choose a sunny day to wash it using a hose, mild detergent and scrub brush, and hang it over a railing or fence to dry. Put the blanket on your horse and make sure it still fits – horses can gain or lose weight over the summer months. Fasten the blanket and slide your hand under it, over the withers and at the front of the chest, to be sure it’s not too tight or too loose. Spend time inspecting the blanket for rips, tears or holes and make those repairs. Check the straps, fasteners or buckles to ensure they’re working properly; if not, contact the manufacturer to see if they will repair or send out replacement parts.

You should have your winter hay supply ready and stored properly to keep dry and away from the elements. It’s a good time to go through your feed room and tidy up. Get rid of old or outdated supplements and medications and replenish if necessary. Check your first aid kit to be sure you have all the items you’ll need if emergencies arise, especially during inclement weather.

Barns are notoriously dusty, whether from bedding, hay, straw and other roughage, and it’s surprising to see how fast the dust and cobwebs build up. During winter, when days grow short, you’ll be relying on the lights in your barn. Using a shop vac, broom or duster, clean off the fixtures and bulbs. Make sure they’re working properly and inspect electric wires and cords for fraying – a faulty fixture or bulb or frayed wire can cause a spark to ignite and result in a barn fire.

Check barn and stall doors to ensure they open and close easily. Keep alleyways and barn entrances and exits clear in case of emergency to ensure you can get to your horse or take your horse out of the barn quickly if necessary. Post emergency telephone numbers (a neighbor, the veterinarian, farrier, dentist, etc.) along with a working flashlight and extra lead and halter near the door.

Horse Tales: Getting Ready for Winter

Make sure your horse’s blanket is clean and fits properly, as a horse can gain or lose condition and a blanket that was used last winter may no longer fit. Check all buckles, straps and fasteners to be sure they work properly. Photo by Judy Van Put

Now that your barn and equipment are prepared, here are some tips for preparing your horse for winter. It’s a good time to have your horse’s teeth checked, ideally by an equine dentist. Most vets will be able to examine and file (or “float”) a horse’s teeth if necessary, but an equine dentist is a specialist and does a much better job. Especially with older horses, it’s important to have a dental check done twice a year. Regular dental care enables your horse to chew its food properly, thus receiving all the nutritional benefits it requires and utilizing the energy provided in order to stay warm and maintain body weight. If you notice your horse dropping quids or half-chewed wads of hay, it is overdue for a dental checkup. Horse teeth continue to grow over their lifetimes and need to be examined to be sure they’re chewing and wearing their teeth down properly. Most horses need their teeth “floated” routinely, or the teeth will grow sharp edges and cause painful cuts to the cheeks. This can result in loss of weight, choke and even colic.

Be diligent with keeping medical records up to date (both vaccinations and deworming). Consider dropping off a fresh fecal sample at your vet’s office before deworming to see which kind of worms or parasites your horse may be carrying, and treat accordingly.

Grooming in winter is very important to make sure your horse’s coat does an adequate job in keeping it warm. A clean and fluffy coat will help to trap air in between, but if it’s caked with dried mud and dirt that insulating air will be forced out. Use a rubber curry comb in small circular motions all over the horse’s body to break up clumps of mud, dirt and debris and lift dust and dirt out from the skin. Follow up with a body brush to brush it away. (You can “rub out” saddle and sweat marks with a light spray of rubbing alcohol and gently rubbing the area till it dries.)

Follow up a good grooming with a silicone-based product such as Show Sheen or other grooming aid to prevent mud and dirt from building up and keep the coat and hair slick to help keep dirt out, being careful not to apply the product under the saddle and girth area, as it will cause the coat to be slippery. Cowboy Magic works well on manes and tails, making it easier to brush out tangles and keep them shiny and clean.

If your horse has long hair or “feathers” on its pasterns, keep these trimmed in winter to prevent mud from caking on.

Lastly, keep your horse’s feet trimmed on a regular schedule even if you’re not planning to ride. Whether or not your horse is shod, trimming is important to keep the feet in good condition. You might consider pulling shoes and leaving your horse barefoot if you don’t plan to ride on hard surfaces during winter. Your farrier can recommend if you need to keep shoes on and can add Borium “cleats” for better traction, or snow pads to protect the soles from bruising on ice and frozen ground. Clean your horse’s feet daily once snow arrives to remove any accumulation of ice and snow.

By preparing your barn, equipment and horse during autumn, you’ll be ready for the snowy cold days of winter, no matter how early they may arrive.

by Judy Van Put