Pasture boarding of horses is popular, particularly in the current challenging economy. Unlike humans, horses can live healthily outdoors in all sorts of weather, as equine veterinarians like Joseph T. Lowry, DVM, explain.
This seasoned Illinois animal doctor and lifelong horseman, interviewed at the 2010 Chicagoland Equestrian Lifestyle Expo on November 20th, offered five simple steps for keeping pasture-boarded horses healthy in the coldest of seasons.
Pastured horses need easy access to water at all times.
“It’s very simple, I think, to keep horses outside all winter,” Dr. Lowry explained. “The number one concern, of course, is that horses always have to have water. And that is the hardest thing you have to do.”
Water troughs tend to freeze in cold winter weather, so farm managers must regularly address this challenge to ensure horses have clean potable water all day and night. Simply eating snow is not enough for horses.
Equines in the field in cold weather need constant access to forage.
“The second most important thing pastured horses need in winter is hay,” continued Dr. Lowry. “Hay generates more heat than grain for horses. In fact, horses don’t really need grain, if they are getting enough quality hay.”
Basic grass hay may be best for horses that remain in the pasture all winter, and a constant supply is needed.
“Horses will certainly get heavier quicker on alfalfa hay, but grass hay is the way to go,” Dr. Lowry opined. “The main thing is that horses need to get nutrients out of their hay. The way their stomachs are designed, they generate a lot of heat inside their bodies, and that’s how they stay warm in the winter. By giving horses small amounts of hay, you don’t do them any favors. Horses need to keep eating and digesting to stay warm in winter. That’s the way it works in the wild.”
Senior horses may require additional nutrition, the Illinois equine veterinarian said. “If you have older horses, you may have to give them supplemental grains to help them through the colder weather.”
Simple shelter is another must for winter pastured horses.
Although horses living outdoors may not have access to barn stalls, these equines do need some shelter from harsh winter winds, as Dr. Lowry described.
“Pastured horses don’t necessarily need to have a building that they stand in,” he said. “But they need to be able to get a windbreak. If they’re really old horses, you might have to bring them in and maybe get them away from the herd. But a group of horses out there for the winter can do just fine.”
Pasture-boarded horses may do best without blankets or shoes.
Simpler winter care seems to be ideal for horses living outdoors all winter.
“I recommend not blanketing,” said Dr. Lowry. “I think the biggest reason for horses being out in the wintertime with blankets on is because folks want to bring them in and do something with them. Blanketed horses won’t grow so much hair, so they can work without getting so wet.”
On the other hand, frailer senior equines may require blanketing. “Maybe the 26-year-old skinny horse that’s out there in the cold may need a blanket. But if he’s got a windbreak, he’ll probably go away from the wind, eat some hay and be fine.”
The experienced equine veterinarian also recommended pasture boarded horses go shoeless in winter, if possible.
“If horses have normal good health, I don’t think they really need shoes out there. What horseshoes normally do in the wintertime is – they have a way of ice building up underneath them. Then horses walk around with chunks of ice under their feet. Unless equines have special hoof needs, it’s nice to go without shoes or pads in colder weather.”
Horses living outdoors all winter should be checked daily.
Because pasture-boarded horses are not led to and from barns or stables daily, they may be easily overlooked, but they must not be.
“Just looking through them once a day can be sufficient for winter care,” equine veterinarian Joe Lowry pointed out. “It’s important to check their water supply, hay, shelter and general condition.”
Overall, many equine professionals, such as Dr. Joe Lowry, advocate the basics for winter horse care: hydration, nutrition, protection, observation and simplicity.
“I don’t think that winter care is a real big deal, as long as you pay attention,” he concluded.
Who is Dr. Joseph T. Lowry?
Joseph T. Lowry, DVM, is an equine veterinarian in Davis Junction, Illinois, who owns and shows Hackney Ponies from his own Lowry Stables. A lifelong horseman and respected equine professional, Dr. Joseph T. Lowry currently serves as secretary-treasurer of the Horsemen’s Council of Illinois.