With all the chores to do, you probably spend as much time at the barn in winter as during warmer weather but you probably don’t interact with your horse in the same way. This can result in some things creeping up on you.
Skin health can be a problem in winter and issues are easy to miss under the heavy coat. When is the last time you actually touched your horse with your bare hands?
The most common problem is Dermatophilus congolensis, aka mud fever, rain scald or rain rot. It’s a bacterial infection that begins as tiny raised scabs which come off with the hair attached to leave irritated areas of raw skin. As the infection advances the scabs become more thick, more adherent and involve larger areas. Left untreated, it can spread to involve the body extensively, including a scratches-like infection in the lower legs.If not detected and treated early, you can have a nasty surprise waiting for you when the horse starts to shed. Debilitated and immunocompromised horses are especially at risk but it can happen to any horse.
Another problem easily missed unless you actually palpate the horse with bare hands or thin gloves is weight loss. The coat makes it impossible to accurately see body condition. Check over the ribs, along the spine/topline and at the hips.
If the horse is not being worked it is difficult to detect signs of impaired respiratory health from confinement in closed up barns with high levels of irritant gas and particulate matter. A slight clear nasal discharge is normal, like we get a runny nose in cold air, but it shouldn’t be frothy. Any coughing is also not normal, even if infrequent. You are most likely to notice coughing when they are eating and running around on turnout.
Hoof growth slows in winter, often leading to longer intervals between farrier/trimmer visits. You may not be as regular about picking out and examining the feet. Thrush can easily creep up on you, especially if the horse is not moving around much. Common problems such as underrun heels, contracted heels and overly long toes will worsen with longer intervals between farrier/trim visits and sooner or later you will pay the price for this with lameness. Consider pulling shoes to encourage the hoof to spread and tighten up that hoof care interval, or learn to do touch ups yourself between visits.
The dry diet, cold water and less exercise can combine to cause GI problems. Make it a point to do careful monitoring of the horse’s appetite, drinking, manure volume and consistency to detect problems early.
Winter horse care is often demanding under unpleasant conditions but if you build surveillance for some common winter issues into your schedule it can head off a lot of trouble.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD