Ask The Vet: Winter Care

Courtesy of AAEP

Question: I live in northern California and after much reading decided not to vaccinate my 25-year-old with his spring shots. I’m taking him to a big horse event in two weeks and am wondering if I should give him a Rhino and flu vaccine. He goes out to events about once or twice a year and has never gotten sick.

Answer: Thanks for the question. Rhinopneumonitis and Influenza are both viral diseases that can very easily be spread around during the type of big event you are talking about. My suggestion would be to vaccinate your horse. Neither vaccine induces an immunity that lasts for very long (even in an older horse that has probably received multiple boosters throughout his life). The situation is very analogous to vaccinating people for influenza: just because you were vaccinated last flu season, doesn’t mean that immunity will carry over into the next flu season. If you need further encouragement, I would urge you to visit with your horse’s veterinarian.

Question: Many people I know remove their horse’s shoes in the winter when they ride less. Is it better for a horses’ hooves to “rest” during the winter when the ground is soft? What would be the deciding factors?

Answer: There are several factors I would consider when deciding to go barefoot for the winter: 1) Does your horse wear shoes because of a lameness/medical condition? If so, I would usually say leave them on.  2) What is the general quality of your horse’s hooves? Here in the wet low country of SC and GA, we have a big problem with white line disease and poor quality hoof wall. Many of my patients need to wear shoes year-round to simply keep their feet from falling apart.  3) What is your farrier’s opinion? This is probably the deciding factor in my mind. I have the privilege of working with several very excellent farriers here, and their expert opinion is worth its weight in gold.  4) If your horse passes the first 3 criteria, I think going barefoot would be a fine idea.

Question: I have read that additional hay should be fed when the temperature is below freezing. How much and what type of hay is best? Would feeding a packaged forage like Chaffhaye Alfalfa be sufficient?

Answer: Thanks for the question. In general, you are correct. The horse (like other warm-blooded animals) will increase their metabolic rate in winter, in order to maintain normal body temperature. If you are doing other things (stall during night, blanket, windbreak, etc.) the need for increased feed will not be as great. Either grass or legume hay is fine to feed, but be extra vigilant that the quality is good. Winter is a common time for impaction colics especially, and good quality hay can mitigate that risk. Also, make sure that plenty of water is available, as water needs also increase during cold weather. Packaged forages are sometimes more expensive than baled hay, but the quality can be more consistent in many cases. They are perfectly fine to feed in the winter.

Question: If my horses get a good winter coat, do they still need a blanket? If so, at what temperature? What about their legs?

Answer: A few factors to consider about blanketing your horse: 1) What area of the country do you live in, and what sort of winter weather do you have? Just like people, your horse will feel the effects of cold more in a wet, humid environment. 2) What age/breed is your horse? Some breeds (for example TB’s), are noted for having “thinner skin”, while others (like mustangs or Nokotas) have much “thicker skin”. 3) What is your horse’s body condition, and does he tend to have an easy time maintaining his weight? In general, a horse with good condition that maintains well will have less need of blanketing.

There are also medical issues to consider when deciding whether or not to blanket. Blankets that are too thick or get left on for too long can lead to excessive sweating, dehydration (a horse’s water intake needs rise during cold weather), rain rot, fungi and other problems. Also, I have experienced situations where a blanket has concealed the fact that an older horse was losing weight or a horse had sustained an injury.

Even more important than blanketing is to make sure your horse has a way to protect himself from the elements: either a stall, run-in shed, or even a simple windbreak can make a remarkable difference in your horse’s comfort level. In many parts of the country, a blanket will not be needed for the whole winter, and the need may change from day to day. A question to ask yourself is: Do I have the time to reliably blanket and unblanket my horse as the weather changes? As far as the legs, in general they would remain uncovered. The purpose of a blanket is to help conserve body heat, and very little heat would actually be lost from the horse’s legs.

My decision of whether or not to blanket a particular horse would revolve around all of the factors and possible concerns that I have stated. Certainly, the common practices of your area’s other horsemen should weigh into your decision, but I would not let “common practice” dictate your blanketing strategy. I would urge you to consider all of these questions and issues, and consult with your horse’s veterinarian for their input.

Reprinted with permission of the AAEP. To view entire article please visit then click Horse Owners, Ask the Vet.