Preparing for winter
It’s barely autumn — but we’re thinking that there might be a long, hard winter coming. These past few weeks we’ve remarked that we’ve never seen so many squirrels and chipmunks in the yard — there have been several chipmunks in the chickens’ fenced in run stealing chicken feed each morning, squirrels chasing each other and falling out of trees, squirrels knocking over chipmunks on their way to the bird feeders,… and yesterday the mystery was solved as to what was happening to all the apples in my October apple tree when I saw a squirrel run up the tree, grab a big apple in its mouth and run back down the tree with it! Evidently they are hoarding seeds, fruit and whatever they can for the winter days to come. And even though it’s just the very beginning of October, there are a number of ways that horse keepers can and should start to prepare for the long and cold winter ahead.
- Hay — Hopefully by this time you’ve already gotten your winter’s supply of hay — if not, it should be the first thing on your list of To-Dos. Realizing that horses need to eat pretty much all of the time, in winter they are dependent on hay as the grass is pretty much been depleted by the first heavy frost of the fall, and horse keepers should be ready with their hay supply for the winter. The best way to do so is to fill the barn or hay storage area with hay well before winter sets in. It’s a good idea to order and store more hay than you think you might need. Most hay dealers prefer to sell their hay from the field; either having you pick it up (most will give a discount if you do so) or delivering right from the wagon, to cut down on the time and handling spent loading and unloading, then reloading and delivering the hay.
Consider using hay bags or slow feeders to manage your hay supply. We’ve found that using hay bags has really cut down on the amount of hay that is wasted. In addition, slowing down the hay consumption via a slow feeder will still fulfill your horse’s nutritional needs but will use slightly less hay. We have a chunky 14-year-old Morgan mare who is an “easy keeper” and can stand to lose some weight, and we’ve found some success feeding her hay through a slow feeder.
- Water — An adult horse should consume at least 10 gallons of fresh water a day to facilitate the digestion of food and to keep the body properly hydrated. Providing your horse adequate unfrozen water is essential, especially in cold weather — horses cannot fulfill their water needs by eating snow nor will they consume enough if they have to break through the ice. Horses prefers a water temperature of between 45-65°F. Under normal conditions, the average horse will consume one gallon of water per 100 pounds of body weight per day; but as the water temperature decreases, horses will drink less. A 1,000-pound horse, which should consume 10 gallons of water per day, may drink as little as 1-3 gallons of water when water temperature is as low as 32°F… and less if he has to break ice in order to drink. When horses are not able to drink enough water, they are at an increased risk for impaction colic. In addition, they will cease to continue eating hay or roughage — which is what keeps them warm in the cold winter months.
During the cold weather, we provide additional water intake for our elder horses by feeding them a ‘warm mash’ — made up of a combination of their feed, some timothy grass pellets, and enough hot water to make a slurry. If you feed dry grass pellets or beet pulp you may need to wait until the water is absorbed and possibly add more.
In the stalls we use plug-in buckets with electric warmers hidden in a false bottom that automatically turn on when the water temperature dips below 40 degrees to keep the water from freezing. Tank heaters are helpful in warming water in your horse’s watering trough.
- Feed/supplements, medications — Check your feed supply, as well as any supplements or medications you may use. Try to stay ahead and have enough to last at least two weeks, as icy or snowy conditions will make it difficult to travel to the feed store if you run out. By always keeping at least two weeks ahead on your stock, you won’t have to travel in bad weather.
Your feed room should have a solid, hinged door that is rodent-proof and horse-proof. If there’s a gap between the floor and the bottom of the door, tack a door sweep or rubber strip along the bottom of the door to provide a rodent-proof seal. Feed bins and pails should be rodent-proof and clean — use up old feed from the bottom before starting a new bag. Supplements, medications and dewormers should ideally be stored in a cabinet or separate shelf or bin to keep your feed room better organized. Check the expiration dates on all such supplies, and toss those that are outdated. Empty supplement containers can me recycled into buckets and storage containers. Store the excess containers and feed or bedding hags neatly; using a wooden pallet under grain or bedding bags will help to minimize mold.
- Get your barn in shape. You and your horses will probably be spending more time in the barn during the winter, and now is a good time to clean out any accumulations of old feed bags, junk, excess or broken tack and equipment.
Keep the aisle in your barn clean and clear of items such as pitchforks and other tools, buckets, grooming equipment to provide easy access and egress for you and your horse especially in the case of emergencies.
Examine windows, shutters and stall doors to ensure all are in perfect working condition. Make repairs of hooks/latches/hinges/hardware and the like. Check your roof for leaks. It’s a lot easier to do these repairs now before the snow and ice arrive and temperatures are too cold for comfort.
Electric wiring, outlets and light fixtures need to be inspected; it is advised to upgrade to Ground Fault Circuit Interruptor (GFCI) outlets for safety’s sake. Check your wiring for rodent damage, and protect light bulbs with cages or safety shields. Be sure that any electric lines that may run across the ceiling rafters of your stalls or barn aisles are affixed securely to the rafters and not hanging down where they can be dangerous to a rearing horse.
- Check your paddock for fallen trees, overhanging tree limbs, broken or weak fencing and posts. Gates should work well. Fill in low areas especially near your horse’s watering station to cut down on the amount of ice that will build up and other slippery areas. Consider having a barrel of sand handy in places that tend to get slippery, and stock up on a few bags of cat litter for extra traction.
By ensuring that you have an adequate supply of hay, feed and fresh water, as well as knowing that your barn is tidy, well-organized, and in good repair, you will make the transition from outdoor pasture to winter stabling much easier for your horses, and earn the satisfaction of being prepared for the long winter to come.