Frigid Fears—Understanding and Treating Common Horse Winter Health Worries

When the last of the leaves fall, and the frost sets in, New Englanders hold their breath for what’s to come. While many only have themselves to worry about, the primary focus is usually keeping their horses happy and healthy. Winter brings many troubles, and some fears are a bit more extreme than others.

Hoof Care

Snow shoes, no shoes, and snow itself, what’s good and what’s bad? There are a lot of questions when it comes to winter and horses’ feet. Steven Kraus, CJF, Head of Farrier Services, and Senior Lecturer, Large Animal Surgery at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine says that we have these questions because it depends on the horse individually. Cracked feet, for example, are a common issue throughout the year, but do they crack more easily in the winter? “Again it depends on environmental factors, too dry or too wet have negative effects,” states Kraus. “Cracking is usually only on the surface. Deeper cracks are usually caused by unbalanced conformation or injury.”

Many might ask about the moisture, and if issues such as thrush can be problematic in the winter, Kraus has an answer for this too, but once again, we must keep in mind that each horse’s hooves differ. “Wet, slushy, mud definitely is a good environment to promote thrush. That bacteria is in the soil,” says Kraus. “Treatment is available with commercial products like Thrush Buster and exposure to air; the bacteria is anaerobic.” Picking hooves when the horse comes in from outside will help prevent moisture from festering and allow air to flow through.

Like thrush, abscesses are a common worry and problem among horses. Kraus explains how they are similar; wet softens the sole making it more vulnerable to entry by grit or other sharp object. If a horse does contract an abscess, the diagnosis and treatment are pretty straightforward. The horse will likely be lame, or tender on or around the infected foot, and there will be a new pimple-like bump. “Drain pus, cleanse, medicate, and protect an abscess,” are the necessary steps to take for treatment, according to Kraus.

Winter shoes usually come with a larger bill, but are they worth it? Kraus says yes, even with little amounts of snow and frozen ground. “Shoes will be recommended, even for horses not in work if they have poor feet, like most Thoroughbreds. Horses being ridden need protection and traction. You never know ahead of time what the weather will be so by November around here it’s time to prepare.” As for what is necessary for winter shoes, it depends on how much outside riding and turnout there will be. Kraus says, “shod horses will need either studs, borium, drill-tex, or other traction devices for ice or hard snow pack, steel is slippery on ice untreated. Also, some type of anti-snow ball pad is needed, otherwise snow builds up like a big snow ball.” Winter shoes will allow for safer riding and safer turnout, even the walk to the barn can be tricky if ice isn’t properly treated. Be sure to talk to your farrier about the available options for your horse and what is best for him and his specific hoof type.

Skin Care

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Many people get dry skin during the winter, but does the dry air really affect our horses? In many ways, yes and no. Veterinarian Caitlin Eaton of EquiDoc Veterinary Services states that when it comes to all winter care, vigilance is key. When we see dry skin on a horse, it’s usually scratchy and flakey, like dandruff. “If the dandruff is excessive, then that could indicate that there is some inflammation in the skin. So its not just related to the relative humidity in the air,” says Eaton. If the dandruff is localized, it can be spot treated with over the counter remedies. If it’s excessive, Eaton suggests getting your veterinarian involved; there may be an underlying issue.

We want to keep grooming our horses routinely, even when they aren’t being worked. A lot goes on under the blanket that owners might miss if they do not take the time to properly groom, such as blanket rub marks. This could be because the blanket doesn’t fit properly, is stretched out, or is secondhand. Consider getting the horse spandex shoulder protectors, for one of the most common areas for rub marks. What’s important, according to Eaton, is to “take the blanket off and do the proper grooming. If you’re noticing any sort of pressure sores, alert your vet, they might have some suggestions for ointments or cleaning the wound, pressure sore, or perhaps it could be serious enough that it warrants antibiotics.”

One skin ailment that almost every horse owner has had to face at least once is rain rot. Rain rot is a bacterial infection that is also known as dermatophilus and it’s caused by a bacteria called dermatophilus congolensis. We see it just as commonly in the summer as the winter. “It’s a bacteria that thrives in a warm, moist environment and that could be under the blanket or a horse that stays out in all weather and has a thick hair coat that isn’t blanketed,” says Eaton. The moisture from precipitation is the perfect breeding ground for rain rot. “With rain rot, you get these crusty little scabs, they can be anything from pinpoint to quarter sized or plaques. The hair usually comes off with the scabs, revealing a pinkish skin underneath. If it’s a small area, a little medicated shampoo in that area works. Clean it, rinse it, and because moisture is a problem, dry it really well,” says Eaton. If you have a big case of rain rot, to the point where it can’t be spot treated, Eaton suggests that if you have somewhere away from the elements, give the horse a complete bathing.

Similar to rain rot is pastern dermatitis, which is also common in winter because of humidity. When horses stand around in the snow, their ankles get wet and stay that way for however long they are outside. That wet hair and skin allows a mixture of bacterial infection to develop, leading to sometimes quite painful scratches and scabs on the back of the ankle. “If they are having issues with scratches, over the counter remedies work for minor cases,” states Eaton. “If the scratches are really red, raw, and bleeding, you may need to get your vet involved. Once scratches begin, it can be a pretty insidious fight, because of the moisture factor, it can be very hard to get rid of.” Keeping scratch spots clean and dry will help prevent the horse from getting a serious case. Eaton also recommends trimming the ankle area during the winter months to allow for better airflow for horses with feathers.

Diet

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It is commonly thought that horses need to be fed more in the winter. This is true because the internal furnace to keep the horse warm requires more fuel than in the summer months. However, it is quite common to overfeed, which can lead to other serious illnesses, such as obesity and laminitis. Eaton suggests that owners learn how to use a body condition scale for their horse. “Having an owner know how to body condition score a horse every other week, or monthly, will help them tailor the diet, because in genera,l horses should be consuming one percent of their body weight in forage in the winter.” By taking some basic measurements, horse owners can determine if the horse is at a healthy weight.

Water, according to Eaton, is the biggest point of all when it comes to winter worries. “I highly recommend owners use insolated or heated water buckets during the winter. There are some very picky horses out there. You will have to experiment to find the perfect water temperature that they will drink.” Horses are going to drink less if they don’t enjoy it. There are ways we can make it more enjoyable, such as heat or hanging a second bucket with a flavoring or electrolyte. The water with the flavoring or electrolyte will also freeze at a lower temperature. “If you are going to flavor (the water), just be sure to have a fresh, plain bucket of water available,” notes Eaton. We are so in tune with what our horses consume that we know how much they drink on a regular basis, whether it be one bucket or three. “We want to mimic that,” says Eaton, “we don’t want to accept that they are drinking less in the winter, we want them to drink the same amount.” Maintaining hydration of the gut is extremely important. “When you have a combination of horses being fed more, but drinking less, that’s a great setup for a colon impaction or, one of the most common issues we see in the winter time, colic,” says Eaton. Another factor of impact colic is any dental pain or disease. Addressing this before winter is important, as it will promote proper chewing.

When it comes to worrying about our horses in the winter, the best thing we can do is prepare ahead of time. By conducting preventative care throughout the year, especially in older horses, there are fewer factors to worry about. These include locking down a nutrition plan, floating teeth, preparing feet for winter, deworming, vaccination, and providing a shelter for horses that are housed outdoors. Horse owners who have further questions about their specific horse can always consult their veterinarian.

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