Preparing for the winter – a vet’s perspective

Whilst some look forward to the winter coming, for most horse owners cold wet weather and short days bring additional challenges. A few easy to remember tips can help to keep your horse healthy, and your winter stress free.

As always, preventative healthcare is very important. Use a qualified equine dental technician or veterinary surgeon to check and float your horse’s teeth which will have a lot of work to do over the winter, chewing fibrous hay or haylage. A healthy mouth ensures proper chewing, saliva production and calorie intake.

Secondly, we must consider worming status after a summer in the field. Most worming control programmes will include a deworming treatment in the autumn to cover tapeworm. Check for redworm with a faecal egg count, or treat before winter, to prevent the worms from becoming dormant in the gut wall, which can result in serious health problems in the spring. All worming control programmes are different, your vet will be able to advise you on the best plan for your horse. 

As winter approaches most horses will have reduced turnout or be stabled entirely. It is vital to make this change gradually and take sensible steps to prevent gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal disease. When turnout is reduced:

  • The horse moves from a diet of moist digestible grass to dry fibrous forage, reducing water intake and making chewing more difficult.
  • Time spent eating is reduced. Rather than grazing all day horses tend to eat their forage as it is fed – in two meals. These two ‘boluses’ put more pressure on the intestines during feeding. And time spent without food increases the risk of stomach ulcers.
  • The horse moves less. Ambling around the field during grazing may not seem like important exercise, but this movement helps with digestion and keeps the joints supple. 

These changes can lead to health problems in our horses. One particular concern is impaction colic, where a bolus of poorly digested fibrous food causes a blockage in the gut. This most often occurs at the pelvic flexure – where the large colon narrows and turns through 180° - and is by far most commonly seen as horses are brought in for the winter.

Fortunately following some simple rules can reduce the likelihood of an impaction and promote good health generally:

  • Start preparations early. Begin stabling your horse for short periods, or overnight, early in the autumn to avoid going from full turnout to stabling abruptly.
  • Introduce forage gradually, either during stabling or add it to the pasture. Transitioning from grass to forage gradually allows the gut microbes to adjust, promoting proper digestion.
  • Provide clean fresh water and monitor drinking.
  • Use a salt block to encourage drinking.
  • Switch to shavings. In the author’s experience horses eating their straw bed is a major cause of impaction colic.
  • Turnout, walk out, lunge, ride… Get your horse out of the stable at least twice each day, whatever the weather! Movement promotes digestion, blood flow, muscle tone and joint health.
  • You might also consider the use of a joint supplement to promote joint health, and a probiotic to support fibre digestion in the hind gut, during this transition and over winter.

There are other issues associated with stabling which owners should bear in mind. Either by poor design or to keep the elements out, many stables suffer from poor ventilation. Appropriate airflow through a stable/yard reduces dust in the atmosphere, which can otherwise cause chronic coughs, allergies and COPD. If your box has a build-up of dust and cobwebs in the rafters the ventilation may not be appropriate. To reduce dust in your stable switch to dust free bedding, rinse forage before feeding, and choose outward-facing boxes or well-designed barns with good airflow.

As always proper nutrition and feeding practices are required for good general health through the winter, but also to prepare for the rich grass in the spring.

Especially if stabled 24 hours per day, try to split your horse’s food into as many small portions as possible. Trickle feeding ensures a constant supply of food and saliva into the stomach which defends against stomach ulcers and reduces boredom. Horses without forage for over 6 hours are 4 times more likely to develop glandular ulcers. 

Many owners will turn to high energy hard feeds to keep condition on their horses during the colder months. Once again it is important to stress the importance of forage and fibre. The equine hind gut acts as a giant radiator in the horse’s abdomen – powered by fibre, the microbiota produce heat during fermentation which is vital for keeping the horse’s body temperature up. Forage keeps them warm! Most horses, even at high level competition, can gain enough energy from forage alone; low starch hard feed and oil can provide safe additional calories if required. 

Remember that it’s perfectly natural for your horse to lose some weight over the winter. It can be beneficial to reduce their body condition before the spring grass arrives. Especially those which are prone to laminitis or equine metabolic syndrome – plan ahead to avoid problems in the spring. 

Some horses take well to stabling, but we all know horses which find being isolated and confined very stressful. Crib biting, wind sucking, weaving and other vices are all too common in stabled horses and can predispose to stomach ulcers, weight loss and other stress-induced conditions. These horses may do better in the field over winter. Failing that it is important to provide companionship and enrichment (with treat balls, salt licks etc.). Nutrition can make a difference here too. It has been shown that horses which crib bite may have structural changes in their brain associated with stress, pleasure, motivation and reward. Starch/sugar-rich feeds activate these brain areas and drive the horse to crib bite. Feeding forage may reduce the urge to crib and keeps the horse busy. 

If your horse gets turnout over winter, or fully “winters out” you’ll almost certainly need to supplement the remaining grass with forage. Even if there is sufficient grazing, beware cold weather which can increase the starch content of the grass and trigger laminitis (yes, even in the winter). When turned out, the wet conditions can cause nasty skin infections like rain scald and mud fever. Always ensure your horse has shelter from the elements and is appropriately rugged (not all will need rugging though). To prevent mud fever dry the limbs and brush off mud; try to avoid wetting the legs further. 

Good planning and proper attention to feeding and management practices will keep your horse healthy this winter.

Meet The Expert

Liam Gamble MA VetMB MRCVS

Liam graduated from Cambridge University in 2011, before working in a mixed practice in North Yorkshire, where he concentrated on equine medicine and surgery. Liam manages the international team at Protexin Veterinary; working with our partners in over 40 countries.

Having spent years owning, competing and working with horses he also supports our equine team and is keen to advance veterinary and owner education in the fields of equine nutrition and probiotics. When not working Liam is most likely walking his dog Tilly somewhere in Yorkshire.