When we think of stabling our horse in winter, it’s natural to think of it as “sheltering.” But the same winter blues that can affect us when weather keeps us indoors can affect our horse in its own way.
Horses are athletic and social creatures (which are two big reasons why we love them). That means they need exercise and the companionship of other horses to remain happy and healthy. If they’ve grown a winter coat, they may actually enjoy being outdoors in conditions we would consider rather frosty.
Here are some tips to make sure your winter stables are a true comfort for your horse.
While “drafty” stables suggest a building that is poorly maintained, you actually want a fair amount of air movement in the facility, especially in winter. Cold air is heavier, which means it can stay in one place longer. And, with it, unpleasant and unhealthy odors (like the ammonia in urine) can linger, which can actually pose a danger to the horse’s respiratory system.
Stables are also breeding environments for a range of airborne microbes. Even in colder weather, stables can be a conducive to their survival and even their growth. The organisms can cause respiratory ailments in people and horses alike. The more time spent in the enclosed environment of a stall, the more exposure there can be. Proper ventilation is necessary to move these issues out and away.
With more time spent indoors, your horse will have less access to fresh forage… if there is any to be had. While provisioning hay inside stables is a bit more work than grain, hay is an important source of fuel for wintering your horse. The process of digesting hay generates metabolic heat that keeps a horse comfortable in colder weather. Chewing hay is also a pleasant pastime for your horse when it might otherwise want to be outside.
Depending on your climate, your horse’s water supply may be prone to freezing, even indoors. So you’ll want to keep an eye on that, and consider floating a ball in the bucket which can prevent freezing in some cases. In any case, a constant supply of fresh water at a moderate temperature (45° to 65° F) will assure your horse stays properly hydrated, especially with a gut full of dry forage. Adding water to grains and providing adequate salt are other ways to assure your horse is getting the water they need.
With more time spent on its feet in its stall, you will also want to increase the amount of bedding to provide a softer surface. Likewise, the bedding will need to be changed out more frequently.
With the added bedding and loose grain, you’re likely to experience intrusions by rodents. This can be disturbing, and represent one more potential source of infection for your horse. The solution is setting out traps in every viable location. “Humane” traps (i.e. those that do not use powerful springs) reduce potential injuries to other stable pets or people. The use of bait is not advised in any case, since that can find its way into the stalls and loose feed.
If possible, allow your horse to communicate with its stable mates when inside for extended periods. This kind of social interaction is important for their mental health which, in turn, affects their total well-being. Supplying stable toys, treat balls, or “hiding” treats like apples or carrots in the bedding can provide another form of healthy distraction.
Most importantly, be sure you have adequate supplies of winter essentials. At a minimum, be sure you have access to such supplies that won’t be badly disrupted by road closures or other seasonal inconveniences.
With everything in place, your stable can be exactly the kind of winter refuge any horse would appreciate.