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AVOID THE WINTER WOES…
The answer to winter woes is easy…simply move south!
It worked for me, believe it or not – as a child I used to live in New Jersey! My southern accent now assures those who hear it that times have changed!
Honestly, times (i.e. the weather) have changed for the north as well. It just doesn’t seem as wintry anymore. Of course, my friends in Vermont would disagree!
Around the beginning of January the temperature is about 35 degrees below. I honestly can’t imagine such temperatures, but the natives tolerate it well, and so do their many gaited Mountain Horses.
Why? Partially because the breed is a hardy one, but perhaps mostly because people are prepared – and well before the cold sets in.
The most obvious preparation is adequate shelter for their horses. Despite what you might think, a windbreak of any sort and a roof over their heads is all that is needed for most. Only those who simply have never been exposed to extreme weather should have a problem. This brings up the subject of acclimation.
Common sense would tell one to gradually introduce our four legged friends to any extreme weather. Never just “throw them out” into the cold unless they are used to it. Fortunately nature generally prepares all horses for winter. Heavy coats, a little extra fat, and usually all will well.
Aside from shelter and acclimation, winter nutrition is critical. In most situations hay, alone, will not suffice. Of course, plenty of good hay is a must – even before the onset of the cold. Before the grass is even gone you should start feeding hay. This assures your horses put on the fat. I don’t mean belly- busting fat, which is not good for any beast, but just pleasantly plump. I would define pleasantly plump as where you can’t see any ribs showing, and they just look “a little” fat. At any time of year other than winter, one should be able to feel but not see the ribs.
In addition to hay, another way to add a little extra fat is to feed a little extra fat. The key to this fat is feeding the “right fat”, which is often hard to find in horse feeds today. Many feeds contain cheap corn or vegetable oil, which are processed and/or hydrogenated in some fashion. These oils are cheaper for the manufacturer and, honestly, are more stable (which is important to the stores if feed is stored for any length of time), but are awful for any horse’s body (or ours, our pets’, or that of any living species).
Also, when fats are processed, the “goodie” is filtered out and sold elsewhere. Natural, unprocessed, GMO free (if available) oils still contain the “goodies”. “Goodies” include such natural preservatives as vitamin E, tocopherols, and sterols, which are fairly stable, albeit more costly. In my humble opinion, the real cause of obese horses – summer, winter, or any time – in what we often call “insulin resistant” or “metabolic” horses – is processed fats. They cause these conditions by interfering with the exchange of nutrients at the cellular membrane level, disallowing the good nutrition to enter and the waste to exit.
The key to avoiding this situation is good fats, not processed or hydrogenated fats. Personally, I like soy bean oil for horses. Soy beans provide “calm calories”, as opposed to the “hot calories” that one might get from corn oil. By the weigh- I mean way(!)- most of the “weight builder” types of products that one sees on the market have these processed fats as the main ingredients. Please read the labels!
Check the labels good and try your best to avoid feeds with corn and molasses. For instance, corn is essentially all calories, effectively just all sugar. Just like sweet feed, corn is definitely not a healthy diet – even in the dead of winter. Granted, heat is produced from the burning of the calories, but corn has the same glycemic index as sugar, and obviously the molasses in sweet feed is sugar. I recently read about top trainer who actually recommends molasses for its nutritional benefits. I am sorry, but I totally disagree! Anything that causes a spike in sugar (even eating a candy bar) causes a subsequent spike in insulin. These spikes of highs and lows lead to insulin resistance, which also creates other metabolic issues: the laminitis prone, the cushinoid- all those fat horses that are on the edge of illness.
Rather than corn or sweet feed, I prefer to feed oats. Add to these oats the good fats and always a vitamin/mineral supplement, and you have the best feed for any time of the year. For a little more fat in the winter, add a little more oil. Also, the nice thing about using oats rather then premixed feeds is that you can vary the amount given to each individual horse, and if you are adding the vitamin/mineral supplement to the amount of oats needed, each horse gets all of the vitamins, minerals, etc. they need each day.
Let me ask you a question. What is the first thing you typically do for an easy keeper horse? The obvious thing is to cut back on the feed. The problem with that is, if you simply just cut back on a premixed feed, then obviously the horse will not be getting the necessary amounts of vitamins, minerals, etc… The subsequent lack of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, etc… then only leads to more metabolic issues.
It also goes without saying that water, not ice, is critical for winter health. If you live in an area where water freezes, heat it. Your local supplies store can advise you on what specifically is needed for that problem. Where I live freezing does occur, but only for a day or two at a time. We simply carry an ice breaker, like an ax, on the feed cart.
It is hard for me to discuss winter without mentioning spring. Good hay, fed all winter long, often has high potassium levels – after all, good hay is generally heavily fertilized right? You know, the 10-10-10 stuff? Nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus. What happened to the rest of minerals on the Periodic Table we studied in high school? Something seems to be missing here. Back to the main point, too much potassium, in a short period of time, without chloride to balance it is deadly for a horse.
This brings up a significant need for salt ( i.e sodium chloride) and plenty of it – and preferably not in the form of a block! Blocks should be outlawed for horses, in my opinion. They simply cannot get what they need fast enough. Horses need loose granular salt, preferably organic (not kiln dried and bleached and dead, like typical salt), and free choice – all they can eat – always available.
I also prefer natural minerals, not processed, or other industries’ leftovers.
Good, soft, readily available calcium will help balance the excess phosphorus from fertilizers. I’m sure you’re aware that most of our grains today are heavily fertilized, as well. If we could only find a good inexpensive source of ORGANIC fertilizers, I truly believe our horses would be much healthier. I suspect many of you already have the answer to this problem piled up next to your barn. Now that’s a bunch of #$%*!
A salt deprived horse, such as one that only has access to a block, when springtime comes may over-consume the lush green grass, causing him to eat too much potassium. Understand that sodium and potassium are very similar substances. In fact, it is difficult for the horse to actually tell the difference. Here you could face a situation where the horse does not even desire sodium, or salt, and salt is very critical to things such as water consumption. The lack of water consumption, combined with dry hay can lead to impaction. Free choice, loose, natural salt and minerals simply have to be available at all times. (our product for this purpose is called RED Cal)
One other nutrient, frequently overlooked in winter, is beta carotene. Hay simply won’t provide it. If you want cycling early for breeding you need to consider supplementing it (Our Weight Check Oil contains beta carotene).
Geriatric horses and younger horses, in the winter, may require special attention (I refer to younger horses as horses under three). Parasites, especially in the winter, when horses are more stressed, can be a real issue, particularly for younger horses. Geriatric horses, honestly, are pretty much resistant to parasites by the time they reach their ripe old age. But if winter is especially harsh, stress can bring out the worst in all situations. My advice with regards to deworming has always been to obtain fecal exams prior to worming, rather than the simple indiscriminant administration of worm medication on a time schedule regardless of age.
With this in mind, fecal exams in late fall for all of your horses would be an important consideration, followed by the appropriate dewormer, if parasites are present. Frankly, I suggest fecal exams on horses under 3 years of age every two or three months, and adult horses every four to five. Although it may be more trouble then simply giving a tube of dewormer, in my opinion it’s a much healthier alternative for both the horse and the environment. Parasite resistance from overuse of chemical dewormers is a serious and growing problem.
A basic and commonsense approach to good health, with perhaps a few twists, is the best approach to the woes potentially brought on by the winter months. You can hardly beat the combination of proper shelter, diet, attention to the most fundamentally necessary minerals as well as supplements (which may simply not be available in sufficient levels in the average horse’s diet), and appropriate deworming to stave off potential problems brought on by the stresses of cold weather.
It is cheaper than moving south if you're not already there!
Dr. Dan Moore, DVM
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