02/07/2014 5:05PM

Horse care basics vital in winter

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The frigid temperatures that have blanketed the East for the better part of the new year swept in at a busy time for the Central Kentucky Thoroughbred community, with new foals arriving daily and several major mixed sales falling early in the year. Although the basic principles of horse care remain unchanged, extra attention must be paid to a few details during the winter months to ensure good health.

“I definitely think it’s a difficult winter,” said Gina Tranquillo, a veterinarian with Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky. “It’s been brutal for people and for horses.”

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,” Tranquillo 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 begin to arrive in January, 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.”

The extreme cold this season means that some farms have waited slightly longer than normal to introduce foals to turnout.

“With the new babies, they can’t handle it,” McLean said. “As [the weather] starts to break a little, we’ll get them out a little bit.”

This year’s Keeneland January sale of horses of all ages fell during the first blast of “polar vortex” activity that has plagued the region, and the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky winter mixed sale, scheduled for Sunday and Monday, is planted squarely in the middle of winter. Horses being prepared for sales may be kept in stalls more often, or blanketed more frequently to preserve their hair coat, which can change their parameters for turnout.

“They’ve still got to get out, but they can’t stay out as long,” McLean said.

Because sales horses are kept inside more often, potentially in close proximity to one another, Tranquillo advises 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.

“When you have a lot of horses in close contact, that’s when things tend to run wild,” Tranquillo  said. “You’ll want to be diligent about your grooming materials.”

An individual horse’s background also must be taken into consideration. A horse shipping to a Kentucky mixed sale from Florida might require blanketing or special attention, while a broodmare shipping in from New York may be better adjusted to the climate.

In addition to providing warmth, blankets for turnout must be waterproof and windproof and must be fitted properly.