Your Ultimate Guide to Preparing for Winter with Horses

Are you and your horse prepared for winter? Photo by barnimages.com / Creative Commons Are you and your horse prepared for winter? Photo by barnimages.com / Creative Commons

It’s beginning to be that time of year — you know, where you look to the pile of blankets and groan. When the hair starts piling on your horse’s coat and the sweat will soon become something that you can no longer just blithely hose off after your post-work ride. When mud begets snow which begets more mud. When lost shoes become the scourge of your month and your spouse buys you a top of the line headlamp for Christmas to “help” with all the times you can’t see.

But too often winter brings unexpected things as well. Barn fires, episodes of colic, blown tires and injuries that cannot be explained but often cost us dearly. Over time we horse lovers will experience all the lows the horse world has to offer, and the common words that escape the latest victim are often “If only I’d thought of that.” Hindsight’s steadfast gaze only worsens those moments, and regret is a pain no horseman should have to experience.

With the onset of fall it’s best to embrace the distance still to come before winter hits, and with it we can turn over a new leaf and take the time to get prepared. This is the time to do the homework we’ve been putting off or take new steps as a way to be a bit more ready should the worst moments come knocking.

There are many things that can be done, and it is probably best to do these with fellow horse owners, boarders or equine activity friends. There are ways to make these menial tasks go by quicker. For example, there’s nothing better than watching the faces of the Walmart shoppers when a group of riders swing through those doors, grab a cart and hit the pharmacy aisle all while strutting in their best pair of FITS. (Side note: Be prepared to see yourselves in the next People of Walmart blog post, so own that sassiness!)

Fire drills in a barn can seem tedious and unneeded but if you ever get to the moment that you do need to use those skills, any and all practice will give you a piece of sanity to grab onto in an insane moment. Beyond the worst case scenarios, fall is a great time for barn improvements like getting rid of low spots in pastures that become perpetual mud pits.

Also this is a great time to look at what you don’t have but could use. What things could make dealing with an icy storm easier? And speaking of ice, do you have steps that are always slippery? Go to a home improvement store and buy some traction paint. Get those stairs painted before Thanksgiving and your barn liability company will thank you.

Trailers too require our attention at moments when we can focus and not right as your spare tire rolls by you on the road. Any vehicle transporting a loved one should be maintained with care and consistency. If the budgets are crunching, why not learn to do some work on your trailer yourself? Changing tires, checking floorboards and installing new mats are skills well within the capabilities of the average adult.

Below is a list of things to consider coming into the winter months as a horse owner, barn owner or barn manager.

Cobwebs create fire hazards. Clean them out! Photo by Peter Markham/Creative Commons.

Cobwebs create fire hazards. Clean them out! Photo by Peter Markham/Creative Commons.

Fire Safety Questions to Consider

1. Do you have a place OUTSIDE of the barn that can house a container of extra halters and lead shanks in case of a fire? Ideally they should be stored in a weather-proof container that cannot melt or rust and definitely away from the possible reach of a structure on fire. Halters and shanks should be leather, not nylon, as nylon halters will melt in intense heat.

2. If your barn is larger and the exits may not be so clear, do you have an escape plan in case of fire? Do people know it? Can they see a diagram of it? Create an escape plan, laminate a large copy for public viewing and send an email to all who frequent the farm so that they too know the plan.

3. Are your fire extinguishers up to date, functional and charged? Are they near electrical panels in case of an electrical fire? Have your fire extinguishers inspected or invest in new ones.

4. Have you ever made contact with your local fire department and spoken to them about doing a walk-through of your farm on a typical day? A benefit of this is they can help you know what could be a problem. Additionally, this allows the folks who would be helping you get a lay of the land in a non-crisis moment.

5. Have you and your barn mates ever had a fire drill to practice how to get all the horses safely away from a structure that their instincts would tell them to run back inside of in a moment of danger?

6. Have you cleaned away the cobwebs and swept out the hayloft? These can be major fire hazards.

7. Do you have metal stall doors or closures? If so, think about how you would open them if the metal was as hot as a stove burner. Really try to look at your barn with fresh eyes and envision: “How would I do this task if the barn were on fire?” You’ll find that the challenges could lead to some simple changes that can make the difference between getting one horse out and getting many horses out.

8. It’s worth considering investing in smoke hoods for walking through a burning barn. Let’s face it, you will want to try to save your horse, but you don’t want to risk your own safety. A device that gives you air allows you to enter a burning barn could make the difference. Why not talk to your fire department about this also? Click here for an example.

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Don’t wait until a snow storm hits to prepare for icy steps. Photo by AG/Creative Commons.

Preparing for Winter Barn Safety

1. Prepare for icy troughs now. Figure out how to move water in a winter storm or freezing conditions. Add stone dust and other mud avoidance materials before the pastures become overly saturated. Test your existing outdoor outlets for proper function, and if you don’t have a true outdoor switch, think about asking an electrician to upgrade you.

2. Prepare for how to get hay to fields now as well. Consider adding a large plastic storage container near fence lines that can hold a few bales and load it up for the times when the tractor or gator can’t drive a vehicle near the horses. It’s little changes in advance that can avoid unnecessary risk based injuries from transporting heavy bales of hay in slippery conditions.

3. Prepare for slippery steps and surfaces. Head to the nearest home improvement store and talk to an associate about the options in paint or a traction producing surface alternative. Beyond being a liability issue, have a client, customer or member of the barn crew injured on ice is just no fun.

Having your horse's teeth checked before winter will help ensure he can chew comfortably. Photo by Tania Cataldo/Creative Commons.

Having your horse’s teeth checked before winter will help ensure he can chew comfortably. Photo by Tania Cataldo/Creative Commons.

Consider Your Horse’s Health

1. Have you had a recent visit with your vet so he or she can see your horse before winter comes and use that as a baseline for any problems that arise during the winter? This ideally should include a fecal test and a basic blood work panel of a complete blood count (CBC). Make sure this is an actual visit where your vet can take time to look at your horse. Pairing this with your fall vaccinations could be ideal.

Knowing your horse’s normal temperature, respiration rate and heart rate is important at any time of year. Check it weekly and keep a chart. The Horse Health Tracker App allows for you to track this along with some other cool functions.

2. Know what feed and amounts your horse eats and the frequency of feeding. Write this down somewhere safe, and if you board your horse, make sure that you have an open dialogue with the barn so that if they make changes you are informed.

3. Have your horse’s teeth checked and floated again if needed. Each horse is different, and as they age a horse should be able to be floated once a year, but I own a coming 8-year-old who absolutely needs his teeth done every six months. The spikes and cheek cuts come quickly if he doesn’t get done at the six-month mark.

If it’s true for him, your horse too could need to be checked more often than you think. A mouth free of spikes, cuts, impactions and other dental problems allows for horses to eat without any inhibitions, which helps natural foraging animals to keep foraging. This in turn can help avoid colic, especially in winter.

4. Do the people who spend the most time with your horse have all of his health information, insurance information (if any), your vet’s contact information, your contact information and an emergency contact who can reach you? Do they know your wishes should an emergency arise? Better yet, are those wishes in writing? Be prepared for those panic minutes in the quiet moments; it will add an ounce of sanity to the anxiety.

Are your horse's blankets ready for winter? Now is the time to repair or replace them. Photo by Five Furlongs Photography/Creative Commons.

Are your horse’s blankets ready for winter? Now is the time to repair or replace them. Photo by Five Furlongs Photography/Creative Commons.

Shopping for Winter Essentials

1. Really assess those blankets and what condition they are in, especially the waterproofing, and replace blankets if necessary. Horseware allows you to trade in your old turnout for a $50 voucher toward a new Rambo, plus they will repair and donate the old turnout to a rescue. Click here for details.

A HUGE benefit of this is that the broken blanket you’re giving back will be fixed up and sent to a horse rescue. Additionally, you can always donate any unwanted blankets to a rescue directly, or sell them on Facebook groups or eBay. That old Rambo that no longer fits any horse you own could pay for an entry fee!

2. Buckets do wear out, and that bend or slight crack can and will likely be exacerbated when it freezes and breaks. Be prepared. Recycle the barn buckets to a rescue before they start to wear out and take your show buckets into the barn. Buy new show buckets and it will help everyone along the way.

3. Re-stock your first aid kit. There are pre-made kits and basic lists online of what is best to have on hand. Anyway you cut it, the moment you aren’t prepared, you will undoubtedly need something. Don’t be the “borrowing boarder.” Go to a Dollar Store, Walmart, grocery store, or pharmacy and stock up on ALL the possibilities. Many of these items won’t go bad, and having two of everything is never a bad idea. 

Here are my first aid kit must-haves:

  • Epsom salts
  • Vet wrap
  • Cotton sheeting
  • Cotton roll
  • Plastic wrap
  • 4×4 gauze squares, non-sterile
  • 4×4 gauze squares, sterile
  • Gauze rolls
  • Betadine Scrub
  • Hydrogen peroxide (at least 1 quart)
  • Digital thermometer (I prefer a 10-30 second thermometer, as they tend to last longer and are more accurate.)
  • Mineral oil (You can use it to sweat a leg without the cancer risk of other alternatives)
  • Big tube of triple antibiotic ointment (Note that the triple antibiotic pain-reliving formula actually has an ingredient on the banned medication list, so make sure that you don’t use that before a show.)
  • Rolled and ready standing wraps (At least five: two fronts, two hinds, and one middle of the road size in 12 to 14 inches)
  • Hoof medication boot
  • Poultice (I love Ice Tight)
  • Wonder Dust
  • Aerosal bandage spray (like AluShield)
  • Blu-Kote
  • Icthamol
  • Bute paste
  • Banamine paste
  • Triple antibiotic eye ointment
  • SMZ antibiotic tablets
  • Dosing syringe (At least two in case of different meds)
Is your horse trailer ready for winter? Now is the time to make repairs and take care of any necessary maintenance. Photo by Tom Sayles/Creative Commons.

Is your horse trailer ready for winter? Now is the time to make repairs and take care of any necessary maintenance. Photo by Tom Sayles/Creative Commons.

Trailering Tips in Winter

1. Tire pressure is like your horse’s TPR (temperature, pulse, respiration). You should know your truck and trailer’s tire pressure and check regularly. To check the tires, be sure to have a reliable pressure gauge. Digitals gauges are great but they can fail in colder weather or when the totally irregular sized battery inside of them dies. Gold old fashioned mechanical tire gauges only work off the air pressure and as such will never fail you when compared to the electronic and air pressure digital combinations.

The best of both worlds would be to have a digital gauge and a mechanical gauge as a backup. Winter is an especially important time of year to check the pressure, as lowering temperatures can cause the pressure in the tires to fall. With the reduced amount of trailering as the snow hits, checking the correct pressure becomes more important. Be sure to have a baseline of correct tire pressure taken when the tires are cold and the trailer is parked on a level surface.

Bonus tip for those going south: When first exploring your winter location, find the easiest air pump to access with your trailer by scouting different gas stations.

2. There are a ton of great gadgets and gizmos that are fabulous tools to help make life on the road much easier, especially with horses. Among them is a battery jumping box with an air compressor. Do make sure that you get one rated for the size truck you have. If it can jump start a small compact, it may not have enough power to jump a 1 ton dually. This is what I use and it’s been a life saver.

3. What many many horse people fail to realize is that the sun and UV rays can affect more than just your skin. And while those awesome helmet sun visors are a great way to protect your skin, we often forget to protect our trailer tires. Dry rot can drastically shorten the life of a tire and the winter is a great time to take advantage of RV and camper sales and grab some tire covers. Here’s one great current deal.

4. The floor of your trailer is a vital surface to check for the health of your horse. Learning to inspect the floor of your own rig is another step towards protecting not only your horse but your financial investment in the trailer as well. At your annual inspection visit to your trailer mechanic, or when you have your bearings repacked, talk to your mechanic and ask about what to look for. A mechanic’s knowledge and your attention can avoid a costly overlook.

5. Have a burnt-out bulb? Risking a ticket while trailering home? Don’t! Changing a trailer light bulb is as easy as changing a bulb on your Christmas tree lights. Grab a friend, a ladder and some bulbs, and hop up and fix any burn-out bulbs.

6. Be prepared for flat tires. I’ve found that the best jack to use for trailering has to be the Trailer-Aid. It’s ease of use and allows for the horses to stay on the trailer and you to work quickly. But before we go further, you have to know how to change a tire! This is simply too easy of a task for someone to say that they cannot do. If you can put studs into the shoe of a 1000-pound animal while battling nerves for how the water, ditch or whatever will ride, I think you can manage a tire change.

But let’s make the learning process fun. Make it a barn challenge. Have individuals or teams compete with how fast they can change an empty trailer on a barn fun night. The winner gets something good, like no mucking for a week or a free group lesson.

Winter with horses is much easier if you are prepared in advance. Photo by Marilylle Soveran/Creative Commons.

This is just the start of the basic rundown of things that you can work on and improve before winter hits and consider as the seasons change. The more prepared you are, the quicker the solution and the calmer you can remain, which in turn will help keep your horse from panicking in an emergency.

There’s always a way to make learning fun, and by all means please give us some comments on other things you do before winter or some funny stories about how you got more prepared for life in the frozen tundra. Good luck as the season winds down, and please do share this with your friends to spread the word about winter safety with our horses.

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