Horses as a species cope well with very cold temperatures providing that they have a shelter – this doesn’t have to be the stable – and are well fed with lots of forage.
Some horses even old horses do surprisingly well living out in cold conditions but they must have access to shelter and ad-lib forage.
One of the biggest challenges with grass kept horses is keeping an adequate supply of running water. Pipe-fed troughs will often freeze up during the winter so it is better to use either buckets or hand-filled troughs, this way you can also monitor how much the horses are drinking.
Stabled horses can suffer from lack of movement which inevitably can predispose to impaction colic as successful gut motility depends on mobility – the horse moving around. Try and walk the horse in hand or turn out into a lunge pen or use a horse walker if available – any movement is better than nothing.
Stable bandages can work well instead of an extra rug and are particularly useful for older horses to help with stiffness.
Waters can freeze at night so put an apple or a ball into water buckets, this may not stop the freezing but generally reduces the amount of ice so the horse can push his way through it. Use lukewarm water to top up the water buckets last thing at night as this can delay the freezing process.
Feed small wet or sloppy feeds to help with gut movement and soak the hay; both of these will increase the horse’s water intake. Soaked hay is also useful for horses with problematic respiratory issues who benefit from being out in the field as this will reduce hay dust and irritation. Feed values should be cut right back to reduce the risk of tying up, bad behaviour and colic. There are lots of grass nuts or soaked fibre pellets on the market which have a low calorie value and can be fed almost ad-lib, like hay in a bucket.
Some horses are very bad drinkers and dislike cold water. You can offer tepid or lukewarm water but any water left in a cold stable will quickly reduce in temperature. Warm water with a splash of apple juice is very popular with some horses who will drink a half or a full bucket of this when offered. Leaving an apple bobbing in the water can encourage horses to get their noses wet and also alleviate boredom with long periods in the stable during icy weather.
Horses often like snow and will play happily in it, you can also ride on a snow-covered surface if the snow is light and powdery and the surface underneath is not frozen. Smear Vaseline into the horse’s hooves in a thick layer as this helps to stop the snow balling up inside the feet.
The main enemy in very cold temperatures is usually ice rather than snow. Light powdery snow is rarely that slippery and turnout and some ridden work can often carry on with care. However, after a few days, the surface of the snow will become poached up and then with cold overnight temperatures, starts to freeze presenting a dangerous hazard for both horses and humans.
You can create walkways across the yard to allow you to muck out and do yard duties with a reduced risk of slipping over. Lay rock salt or grit or muck out a line of bedding around the yard for people and horses to walk on. It does make a mess when the snow melts and require quite a lot of clearing up but it will allow you to move around reasonably safely in very cold conditions. Non-slip footwear is essential.
Horses that can be moved and handled safely will benefit from going out into a sand pen, indoor school or going on a horse walker.
Warmer temperatures will usually create large amounts of slush and water. Slush can be as hazardous as ice so it is sometimes as well to wait for the thaw to finish before you resume normal exercise and turning out particularly as lying snow when it melts will make the ground conditions very wet in grazing fields.
Turning out and riding after a period in the stable
Riding or turning out a horse which has been cooped up in its stable for long periods is something of a challenge; the main concern is avoiding injury to both the horse and the rider or handler.
Each horse is different. Some horses can be ridden safely straight after a period of time spent in the stable whereas others most definitely cannot. It can be helpful to turn out a horse before it is ridden for rider safety but this can increase the chance of injuries due to exuberant behaviour in the field.
Lungeing a horse can present a useful compromise, exercise can be reasonably controlled without the freedom of the field but it doesn’t put the rider at any risk. Horses can still be quite naughty on the lunge so it will require a competent handler with gloves and hat.
Winter storms can involve a combination of high winds and heavy snow which may cause power cuts so it is as well to be prepared for a loss of lighting.
Keep a powerful flash lamp in your feed room which can operate as a hand-held torch and also has an integral stand so it can be propped up. A cord attached to the torch is also useful so the torch can be hung from a nail on a beam.
Miners lamps or head torches are also very useful in this situation as they allow you to keep both hands free to work.
Old horses need more proactive management in cold temperatures. The most common cause of weight loss is usually lack of long fibre so feed as much hay as possible rather than increasing short feed. Stable bandages can help with stiff legs and some people use an anti-inflammatory like bute for old horses that have to be kept in for a few days to help promote their mobility in the stable. Like all horses in this situation, they will benefit from being walked in hand if possible.