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Winter care of horses

Submitted photo/Dick TracyFelicia Tracy walks her horse as part of a regular exercise program, which is important even during winter months.
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Those of us with pastures for our horses are especially thankful for the recent good rains and the prospects for more. Why? Good pasture is an excellent source of nutrition – a natural environment for horses where they can eat as they please, exercise at leisure, and rest on a soft cushion in the sun. A horse can be a horse!

Without sufficient rainfall, good grasses and legumes fail to prosper, and our pastures become havens for weeds, hard footing and dust.

Today many horses are kept in small pastures, in corrals, or stabled. That environment is only as good as its maintenance by humans.



Properly stabled horses are pampered beasts, given three well-balanced meals a day, blankets as determined by the temperature, and daily exercise or turnout in a paddock. These horses are well groomed and bedded down in straw or shavings, and their stalls are cleaned at least once a day.

Many horses are less fortunate, slogging around a muddy corral with perhaps an open shed for shelter from the worst of the elements, and fed hay a couple of times a day. This doesn’t mean they’re “abused,” but horses whose specific needs are ignored and forgotten certainly are. This is particularly true during stormy weather.




Wet weather keeps many horse owners inside, where it’s warm and dry. It takes a dedicated rider or those with a covered arena to get out to exercise their mounts and concerned owners to check up on their horses in the worst weather – the most important time to do so.

And even experienced horse owners sometimes fail to pay proper attention to their four-legged friends.

To my shame, I discovered that a gelding of mine – turned out in a nice, large pasture with shelter and extra feed – had gotten into some cockleburs – horrible, spiky seed pods from a plant known botanically as Xanthium pensylvanicum. The cockleburs were scattered through his mane, tail and forelock, and it is no easy job to remove them. It is noteworthy to mention that he looked just fine from a distance.

I know my lesson horses, also in pasture, have found shelter from the storms in the oaks and brush. They, too, get extra feed, and I see them daily, even though most lessons are called off when it is pouring.

However, a common rainy season problem for outdoor horses, called “rain rot,” will likely hit soon. Then the horses will suddenly look a bit like they have mange as their skin becomes scaly and their hair – especially on the back – begins to fall out.

Once that happens, Betadine solution baths are in order, along with frequently washed saddle pads and extra protection for tender skin. Sometimes antibiotics are needed. One way of avoiding this malady is to have a water-repellent turn-out blanket on your horse.

It’s hard for horses to easily adapt to abrupt changes in weather. Most important is that they have an ample supply of fresh drinking water and that they drink. Otherwise, they are prone to colic, which is serious stomach pain often related to dehydration.

The problem is that cold weather is not conducive to a horse drinking adequate amounts of water. In addition, a horse thoroughly chilled by rain, wind and falling temperatures may be subject to respiratory infections.

If your horse is visibly shivering or not interested in eating, it is wise to check his temperature (normally between 99 to 100.5 F) so that treatment by a veterinarian may be administered promptly if the horse is sick.

Horses kept in corrals and less-than-clean stables often suffer from thrush, a stinking, nasty fungus in their hooves. This is preventable by daily cleaning, but once diagnosed it must be treated aggressively by using your hoof pick and applying over-the-counter products such as Clorox, Kopertox or iodine.

Another mud problem is referred to as grease heel, a dermatitis created from moisture and filth, often when long hair in the pastern area cannot dry out. It looks like severe chapping, often manifested in open sores.

After thorough washing, Desitin is an acceptable salve to use on the area. Again, unless the horse is regularly checked, the problem could go unnoticed until it reaches an advanced stage, causing severe lameness.

So, if you brought your horse some carrots for Christmas, I hope you also gave him a pat and a good checking over. The New Year is upon us, and good care now will ensure that your horse in the peak of health and happiness when it is time for that irresistible spring riding.

Felicia Schaps Tracy is the owner of Emigrant Springs Horsemanship, co-founding instructor of Northern Mines Pony Club, member and Certified Horsemanship Association and the American Riding Instructors Association. Write her in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.


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