It won’t be too long before we can switch from cursing cold and snow to mud and shedding hair. In the meantime there is still a stretch of winter to contend with and it’s a good idea to take stock to make sure you don’t have any unpleasant surprises under that winter coat.
If the camera can add 10 lbs to our weight, a dense winter coat can add 100 to your horse’s. Visual inspection alone just can’t give you accurate information about weight. Cold can take a heavy toll both in terms of weight loss from inadequate calories and dehydration from failure to consume enough water from overly cold sources – or frozen ones.
Religously add at least 2 tablespoons of salt to your horse’s food every day and provide warmed water to further encourage drinking. This is cheap anti-impaction insurance. Also press deeply through the coat on a weekly basis to make sure ribs are not becoming too prominent, a sign of weight loss. Free choice hay 24/7 should be the cornerstone of winter feeding. If weight loss is detected despite this, you will need a more concentrated calorie source, either grains or low sugar/starch alternatives such as beet pulp and soybean hulls.
Skin disease can also be lurking undetected under that winter coat. Debilitated rescues and seniors with Cushing’s Disease are particularly susceptible. “Rain Rot”/Dermatophilus infection is a major concern. The coat may show islands where tufts of hay appear to be standing on end. Careful palpation will find areas of scabbing. Clipping of involved areas and local scab removal and disinfection isn’t easy in winter but it must be done if you don’t want to face a much worse problem in the spring.
Weight loss and colic signs mid to late winter, with or without diarrhea, should lead to a suspicion of mass emergence of encysted small strongyle larvae. Fecal egg counts will be negative. Severe cases will also have a low blood albumin level. Moxidectin is the ideal treatment for this.
Finally, if you have been tempted to stretch out the interval between shoeings or trimmings in winter, reconsider. Hoof growth does slow somewhat in the cold, but you can’t afford to let growth get out of control. Long feet grow forward too much, putting the hoof capsule ahead of where it should be to provide maximal support and mechanical advantage. This can and does lead to contracted heels, shriveled frogs and strain on the laminar connection at the toe. Talk to your farrier/trimmer about measurements you can use to determine when the hoof is getting too long.
None of this will take a lot of your time, but it will help guarantee your horse is ready to go when spring finally arrives.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD