Horses and Winter
With the coming of colder winter months soon to follow a dry summer period, there are important considerations to take into account when caring for horses. Decisions about your resources and ability to provide for each horse need to be made before the cold winter months arrive. As the weather and ground cool, significant grass growth may not occur until well into the next Spring. Given these conditions, the following points are a guide to caring for your horse:
1. Keep your horse above Condition Score 2. Score 3 is preferable. Once under Score 2, a horse needs twice the amount of feed to gain 1 kg than it does for maintenance. Therefore it is less expensive to maintain a horse at or above Condition Score 2 than to let it fall below this Score and then attempt to increase it. See Condition Scoring and Weight Estimation of Horses for more information.
2. Providing shelter or a rug to reduce your horse's exposure to wind and rain will help prevent weight loss due to the horse burning extra calories to keep warm. Wind and dampness (ie rain) can cause a horse to lose body condition or become ill very quickly. If your horse is rugged, it needs to be inspected daily in case it becomes tangled in the rug or injured. Additionally, the rug needs to be removed at least once a week to check the horse's body condition, for any rubbing by the rug and for signs of water leaking through the rug.
3. Create a feed budget now. Plan to feed through winter until well into the next Spring, when new grass of good quality grows in sufficient amounts to be grazed. De-stock, or reduce numbers if necessary, before your resources run dry. De-stocking of horses can be done by selling horses via an advertisement in a newspaper or horse magazine, or by taking the horses to the saleyards. If necessary, consider euthanasia arranged with a knackery or veterinary practitioner. It is more humane to euthanase a horse rather than to allow it to suffer from starvation or illness. See Feed Budgets for Horses for more information.
4. Beware of the "green drought" illusion. Paddocks may appear green after rain but there may still be insufficient pasture for horses. Check the pasture in your paddocks carefully and be realistic about the grass available.
5. Get a dental check-up done on horses. Teeth that are properly maintained by an equine veterinarian or dentist will help your horse to make better use of its feed, which will ultimately save money on feed costs. Regular dental maintenance will also help prevent painful dental conditions developing.
6. Maintain a worming program. Worms in the horses gut take nutrients from the horse and cause damage to the gut which reduces absorption of the nutrients from the food.
7. Wean foals as soon as they are mature. A lactating mare costs 70% more to feed than a dry mare, to maintain condition. The minimum weaning age for a foal is 16 weeks of age, and at a minimum liveweight of 28% mature body weight, eg. 140kg for a horse that reaches 500kg mature weight.
8. Re-assess the value of your horses when deciding to keep any of them. Be realistic and keep in mind:
- Horses are generally worth less in drought conditions due to oversupply.
- Horses in light body condition will generally have little or no value.
- Unhandled, unbroken and aged horses will generally have low value.
- Lactating mares, young & old horses will need the most energy to maintain condition and should be the first selected for de-stocking or disposal.
9. Beware of sand colic. This can be caused by ingestion of sand from feeding on ground. A simple test to indicate if your horse may excessive sand in the gut is to place some manure in a glass jar full of water, shake it and let it settle. Often the sand will settle at the bottom. Avoid feeding on sandy ground if possible reduce the risk of sand colic occurring. If you suspect your horse may be at risk of sand colic consult your veterinary practitioner.
10. Beware of stringhalt. Stringhalt is a nerve related condition thought to be caused by a fungus on flat weed, and some other weeds. Signs include exaggerated flexion of one or both hind legs when moving forwards or backwards. It is most likely to occur in Autumn, particularly after or during drought. Contact your veterinarian if you suspect your horse may be affected.
11. Beware of weed poisoning. Weeds often flourish after rain in Autumn, following a summer drought. Common weeds poisonous to horses include Pattersons curse, ragwort, bracken fern, flatweed, marshmallow and St John's wort. (See Drought Feeding and Management for Horses for a detailed list).
12. Beware of laminitis / founder. New grass after rain can cause laminitis if the horse is allowed access to it too quickly. Introduction to new grass should be done gradually. (See Founder (Laminitis) in Horses for more information.)
10. It is your legal responsibility to ensure that horses do not starve or become distressed at any time, including during dry / drought conditions and the following winter months. Doing nothing is not an option. Being aware is a necessity. It is imperative to plan your resources ahead and make appropriate arrangements if they cannot meet the needs of your horses.
11. More Information:
- Visit the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (DEDJTR) website at www.agriculture.vic.gov.au/horses
- Contact the DEDJTR Customer Service Centre, Phone: 136 186 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- For contact details of your nearest knackery, contact PrimeSafe on 03 9685 7333.
- For details of your nearest saleyard, contact your local council or nearest pony / horse riding club.
"Falling into Winter", Kentucky Equine Research EquiNews, Vol 9 Issue 4, 2006, www.ker.com.
Nash, D (1999) Drought Feeding and Management for Horses, RIRDC, ACT, Australia.
RIRDC Equine Research News (1995) Issue 2. http://www.rirdc.gov.au
Stubbs, A (1999) Healthy Land, Healthy Horses, A Guidebook for Small Properties, RIRDC, ACT Australia.