If you live in an area where you get the full spectrum of winter weather - freezing rain, sleet, snow, ice, and so on - getting ready for the onslaught can be a time and labor intensive process. There’s quite enough to do to make sure that your horses are prepared for dramatic long-term changes in weather. Making a checklist of tasks can help you compartmentalize and not get overwhelmed as the cold and wet time of year approaches.
Depending on the size and scope of your barn and the acreage of the property you live on, some of the major areas to focus on include:
- Water and heat
- Mud control
- Barn integrity and ventilation
- Tack storage
Are your fences in good repair?
There is no question that winter weather can turn your farm into a beautiful and picturesque landscape, complete with snow drifts and icicle formations. Before you get lost in thought picturing the scene in your mind, is your farm or barn perimeter bordered by traditional wood fencing? Is it untreated wood?
This fence has been compromised by winter weather. Photo by pamelasperkins on Pixabay.
If so, the same conditions that create this beauty poses very real structural risks to your fencing. Biting winter winds, along with the heaviness of ice and standing snow can weaken, break, and destroy loose or rotting fence line and posts. Prior to the first snowfall, you should consider walking the length of your fences and inspecting their integrity.
Make certain that any wiring along the fence line is tight. Test fence posts to ensure that they are sufficiently steady and firmly in the ground to support the fencing itself. Examine the horizontal boards, and replace or repair any that are loose, broken, or rotting. Finally, trim any dead tree limbs that might be hanging over your fencing.
Who doesn’t love the serenity that comes from admiring rolling hills and quiet pasture land? Winter is the time to let those fields recover for the coming year. It’s important to let your fields rest, even if you have limited acreage. The key thing to do is take the time to reseed the area and allow the seeds time to germinate in preparation for Spring.
Reseeding and letting pasture land rest for a time does two useful things for your land. It increases the amount of nutritional grass for your horses in the subsequent seasons. It also helps limit the growth patterns of weeds and harmful grasses.
Reseed pasture land before winter storms blanket the earth in snow. Photo by Julie Kolibrie on Pixabay.
Why give freshly seeded ground time to rest and recover? Letting horses trample around on wet wintry pasture can disturb seeded ground, running it down and creating mud pockets that may turn into bald patches after the thaw.
Water and heating
One of my least favorite winter tasks as a kid was hauling hot water to melt ice in the water trough, which was quite a way from the house. I also used an ice pick or hammer to break inches of ice. Maybe this is something you still dread every winter, and I feel your pain. My saving grace was water heaters. These are fairly inexpensive and keep trough water warm enough to avoid freezing.
This is an obvious benefit to horses, who will never be without fresh water to drink. Horses prefer drinking water that’s at a temperature between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. So another benefit to water heaters is that it will encourage horses to stay hydrated, which can be a challenge in the winter. Each horse you own drinks about 1 gallon of water per day per 100 pounds of weight. So if the average horse weighs about 1,100 pounds, this means that each horse is drinking over ten gallons a day.
Ready access to fresh, clean water is essential for horses in winter. Photo by 18516 on Pexels.
Multiply 10 or 11 gallons per horse per day times however many horses you have. It comes out to a lot of water, which does them little good once it’s frozen over. Check your pipes before winter weather or cold snaps hit, and try to keep your water faucets dripping in extreme temperatures to keep them from breaking.
Whether it’s melted snow, sleet, or ice, or just a wintry mix, standing water and muddy conditions can cause problems beyond having to trudge through it or tracking it into the house. Mud is a convenient hiding place for bacteria, such as Fusobacterium necrophorum, which is commonly responsible for thrush in horses. The more a horse is out in muddy fields, the more likely that mud will become compacted into their hooves, providing the perfect conditions for these harmful bacteria to grow and cause harm.
Thrush isn’t the only problem that can affect horses who spend time meandering over muddy ground. It also presents greater risk for white line disease, another microbial infection. In addition, if the surfaces your horses are walking on are icy, slick, or even just muddy, their footing will be less sure, and the greater the chances for joint, leg, and hoof injury.
Muddy ground can cause all manner of problems for your horse. Photo by Alexander Dummer on Pexels.
How can you battle mud on your property? Creating water runoffs or scattering a layer of sand or gravel in high traffic areas can substantially reduce both the amount and depth of mud and muck your horse has to contend with. Concentrate on high traffic areas: around water troughs, fence lines, run-in sheds, and around hay feeders.
If you have more than one pasture area, rotating which ones your horses go out in can also help prevent a lot of standing water and mud build up over the course of the season. Ray Smith, one of my college professors, wrote an excellent article for the Stable Management website on managing mud at your farm, which I recommend.
Shelter and ventilation
Proper airflow in your barn is essential, especially during the winter. While we tend to think our horses should be closed in to optimize warmth and comfort, the fact is horses weren’t made to be kept inside. They need fresh, circulating air around the clock. Keep a door to the stable open even if there is a chill or feet of snow on the ground, and their respiratory systems will thank you.
On the other hand, if your horse stays outside during the winter, you should provide them with some kind of sturdy, even if it is temporary, shelter. This will give them a safe place of refuge from snow, ice, and wind during winter storms. Even if there are trees in your pasture that provide some weather barrier, they may present more danger than safety for your horses if limbs or branches happen to snap and fall under the weight of ice or snow.
Make sure your barn is well ventilated and that your supplies are stored properly. Photo by Jill111 on Pixabay.
Cold weather can be ruthless and unforgiving on horse tack, so before freezing temperatures arrive, you should think about storage and maintenance. Clean and oil all of your essential leather goods. Keep horse feed and supplements stored in areas or rooms where you know they will remain not only dry but also secure from pesky and hungry wildlife.
Aside from water troughs, your tack room is one place where a bit of warmth can go a long way in winter. It is also a good place to keep a first aid kit, extra batteries, flashlights, dry blankets and spare clothes, an extra phone charger, and other emergency supplies.
You might also store a generator in the tack room, but take great care if the time comes that you need to use it. Generators produce fumes, including carbon monoxide, which can be deadly, both to you and your horses. So always take generators - whether gas or electric - outside before firing them up. Popular Mechanics has an informative piece on generator safety. Its first section, “How Not To Die,” should give you an indication of how seriously you should take generator safety.
Are you ready for winter?
“Winter is coming” isn’t just a prophecy from “Game of Thrones.” Winter weather and sub-zero temperatures can cause a host of problems on an otherwise quiet farm. From the fences that mark the perimeters of your land to the sanctity of the tack room, wintertime can disrupt daily routines for you and your horses. Being prepared in advance with a thorough winter prep checklist will make this challenging time of year much easier and less eventful for you and your horses. What winter prep strategies are on your annual checklist?