02/18/2015 4:07PM

Horse care basics vital in frigid temperatures

Gainesway Farm/Michael Hernon
Gainesway's Michael Hernon shared this photo of champion and pensioned stallion Smoke Glacken and farm employee Tommy White on Wednesday afternoon. The Lexington area was blanketed with snow earlier in the week and is expected to see record cold temperatures.

After a fairly mild start to winter, the season arrived with a vengeance in Lexington, Ky., the heart of the nation's Thoroughbred industry, this week.

Some areas of Lexington received more than a foot of snow on Monday, Feb. 16, and the region is now bracing for record cold. The forecast in Lexington predicted temperatures of minus 14 overnight on Wednesday, and wind chills as low as minus 29 on Thursday.

The record low air temperature - not counting wind chills - for Lexington is minus 21 on Jan. 21, 1963.

The frigid weather has arrived at a particularly busy time for the Thoroughbred industry, with foaling season well underway and most of the area's major stud farms opening breeding sheds the week prior. Although the basic principles of horse care remain unchanged in winter, extra attention must be paid to a few details to ensure good health.

In cold weather, a horse must have regular access to fresh water as well as to roughage such as hay. These are basic principles of horse care year-round, but they are particularly important in the winter months to reduce the risk of impaction colic from dehydration or from an upset digestive system. Horses can easily become dehydrated in winter due to a frozen water source.

“You may worry about frozen water buckets, so – especially if you have a mare that is lactating – maybe you hang more than one,” Gina Tranquillo, a veterinarian with Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky., said. “Maybe you change them out more often, or you top off with hot water. Heated buckets can be beneficial.”

Tranquillo cautioned that if a horse owner chooses to use heated buckets, extra safety precautions must be taken to ensure proper function and to avoid the risk of fire.

Roughage such as hay and grazing should make up the bulk of a horse’s diet year-round, but additional hay should be provided in the winter months due to the lack of grass and to better facilitate heat production. Mark McLean, farm manager for his family’s Crestwood Farm in Lexington, said offering free-choice hay is a good solution.

“It’s important to have a good amount of good-quality hay,” McLean said. “That’s where [horses] generate the heat, in their digestion.”

Horses at liberty in a field graze constantly, usually accompanied by a moderate amount of physical activity as they move from one grazing location to the next. A horse’s well-being is dependent in part on physical activity – however, in winter, horses may be kept in stalls more frequently. It is vital to continue to provide some form of activity, both to ensure normal digestive processes and to reduce boredom that may lead to stall vices or self-injury.

However, this requirement must be balanced with forethought in the winter, as slipping on ice can cause injury, and walking on frozen ground can cause lameness.

“You see some people monitoring the footing and maybe not turning out if the ground is frozen,” Tranquillo said.

As foals arrive, some farms take extra precautions with their new arrivals, such as delivering in stalls with heat lamps or blanketing foals. Getting the youngster off to a good start is important, as following typical protocols to ensure a healthy foal will help prevent problems that could be compounded by cold weather.

“The big thing with those babies – and we’ve had a couple born in this cold weather – is that they are healthy,” McLean said. “If they’re born sick, it can really set back everything.”

The broodmare’s nutrition also remains vitally important, as nursing a foal is an extra challenge for her body.

“[The most important things are] making sure the foal is nursing, and monitoring the nutrition of the mares, their hydration especially,” Tranquillo said. “They’re working harder to keep warm themselves, and then you add lactation.”

With horses being kept in in winter, potentially in close proximity to one another, veterinarians also advise to watch for signs of skin diseases that can be spread via close quarters or shared equipment, such as rain rot when moisture is present, or ringworm. Ventilation of the barn also is important to prevent respiratory distress due to ammonia or dust buildup.