Changing seasons means changing routines, from your riding wardrobe to your horse care.
A pleasure mount kept outside in North Dakota will have a very different autumn experience than a show horse stabled in Florida. Still, they share one thing in common: changing seasons usually necessitate a change in routine to manage the transition from summer to winter.
Doing what’s right for your horse and your situation is paramount, but here are 12 things to consider when it comes to your fall horse care routine:
1. Shelter Safety Check
Whether it’s a custom-built dream barn or a DIY run-in shed, your horse will likely be spending more time indoors starting this fall. It’s important to do some basic checks to make sure he will be safe!
– Check electrical cables for signs of fraying, corrosion, or rodent damage. Most barn fires occur in fall and winter.
– Check barns for drafts and ventilation. Horses need adequate ventilation, but big drafts should be patched before winter winds blow.
– Get ready for rodents! They like to come indoors during the winter, too. Move grain to rodent-proof containers, like metal garbage cans or an old chest freezer.
– Check fencing for loose boards, sagging wire, loose fence posts, voltage drop, or other concerns.
2. Prepare Blankets
Even if your horse isn’t blanketed, it’s a good idea to have one on hand if he becomes sick.
Blanketing before the winter solstice (December 21) will decrease his winter coat, so keep that in mind if you’re not sure when to start blanketing him.
– Check blankets for holes, rips, or tears. Either replace them, patch them, or have them sent away for professional mending.
– If you didn’t clean blankets at the end of last winter, do it now. You can use a professional service or break out the pressure washer.
– Check for broken buckles and check straps for signs of excessive wear.
– Double-check fit, especially if your horse has lost or gained a lot of weight this year.
3. Stock Up on Hay, Feed, and Bedding
If you didn’t do this during the summer, do it now before quantities drop, and prices increase.
– Stalled horses should have a deeper bed to help keep them warm. Straw will hold heat better than shavings. – As grass begins to lose nutritional value in late autumn, you may need to start supplementing with hay. Below 5°F (-15°C), horses will need about 2% more roughage per degree drop to keep warm.
4. Deworm and Vaccinate
Pasture parasite loads tend to increase with autumn’s shorter, more thoroughly grazed paddocks.
– Consult your vet for a fecal egg count, to see which parasites are the greatest threat to your herd, and deworm accordingly.
– Avoid using the same dewormer exclusively, as this can lead to drug-resistant parasites.
– Schedule regular vaccinations in the fall, before inclement weather moves in. If your horse is competing during the fall and winter, now is a good time for the influenza / rhinopneumonitis vaccine.
5. Pasture Rotation
As part of your anti-parasite efforts, and to give pastures time to regrow, autumn is a good time to practice pasture rotation to let summer pasture rest and regrow.
– Either remove manure from fields or spread it to let it dry and freeze over the coming months to kill parasites.
Beware fall laminitis attacks! Increased autumn precipitation can increase the sugar content of grass. This can make it too lush for laminitis-prone horses, such as those that are obese, have Cushing’s disease, ponies and other ‘easy keepers’, or horses that have had a laminitis attack in the past. Move horses to a ‘dry’ paddock, sacrifice land (such as a barnyard, or another fenced area without much grazing), or use a grazing muzzle for part of the day if you’re concerned.
6. Develop a Good Body Condition Score (BCS)
While obesity is never good, it’s better to be “over than under” going into winter.
– If your horse is underweight, autumn is your last chance to safely increase his weight before winter sets in.
– Consider adding alfalfa to grass hay to increase protein and calories, or add beet pulp to his grain ration. Beet pulp is a good way to add fiber and calories but without much starch or sugar.
7. Watch Water Intake
Even if he is drinking regularly, he may be getting less moisture in the fall.
– Horses can get water from lush grass, which is about 60-80% moisture. Dry late-autumn grass and hay will not provide this moisture.
– Horses will drink even less as the weather gets colder, so have a way to ensure he has sufficient access to water. Consider insulated water buckets, a submersible heater, boiling a kettle, or adding a flavored electrolyte or apple juice to his water to encourage drinking.
8. Hoof and Dental Check
Fall is a good time for most hooves – hoof wall growth is strong (although it will slow over the winter), and the breaking and chipping caused by stomping at biting flies are all but over.
– Speak with your farrier about your winter hoof plan and decide “to pull or not to pull” shoes, if he is usually shod.
– Shod or not, he’ll still need a trim every 6-12 weeks, depending on hoof growth.
– Depending on your region, dry conditions can dehydrate hooves, while excessive mud can cause thrush, scratches, and other problems. Stay on the lookout for these problems as winter grows nearer.
– Dental Checkup: Your horse needs to eat hay to stay warm, but he needs his teeth to eat. Have your vet or equine dentist check him now, before he starts losing condition.
9. Take Care of Special Needs
Depending on your horse’s phase of life, fall is an excellent time to see to a few necessary tasks. For example:
– Fall is a good time to geld colts. Cooler temperatures and fewer flies make recovery easier and reduce the likelihood of infection.
– If he’s still nursing, it’s probably time to wean that foal! Mom will need her energy to stay warm instead of producing milk.
– Pregnant mares shouldn’t need additional feed just yet but may benefit from more nutrients. Talk to your vet about the right feeding program for your broodmare.
10. Reassess Nutrition Requirements
If your horse is still working well into fall, you won’t need to cut back on his grain just yet. However, if you plan to take a cold-weather hiatus from riding, you’ll need to cut back his intake. As well as offering additional hay, there are a few other things to consider:
– Additional salt. Salt makes horses drink more, so adding it can help keep him hydrated and reduce his risk of colic. 2 tablespoons of loose salt in his water bucket can keep his sodium level up and encourage drinking.
– Reduce electrolytes. A horse that is not working and sweating as much as he does in the summer won’t need these.
11. Prepare for Mud
Regardless of what winter brings in your neck of the woods, there’s one thing nearly every part of the country has in common: mud.
– Change high-traffic areas, like water troughs and feeding areas, to temporary locations with better footing if mud is a problem.
– Use wood chips, or install a commercial grid or other mud management system to improve traction.
– Resolve to re-seed high traffic areas in the spring.
12. Know the Signs of Colic
Colic is the #1 cause of death in horses (except old age), and many colics occur in fall and winter. Often, changing management practices are to blame.
– Make any diet changes very slowly to avoid upsetting the horse’s sensitive digestive system, and always have water available.
– Know the signs of colic, and have a plan to walk the horse while you wait for the vet to arrive.
– DO NOT administer any pain medication to a suspected colic case (this can mask the severity of the problem when the vet arrives), but keep a well-stocked first aid kit on hand so you can establish vitals, like heart rate and temperature.
Get Ready to Ride!
While autumn is the time to begin the transition into winter, it’s still one of the best times to ride. Fewer bugs, cooler days, and stunning fall foliage make autumn a favorite time for many equestrians.
Adjusting your fall horse care routine can help you and your horse to handle whatever winter throws at you without missing a stride.
What’s something horsey you do in the fall that you don’t do any other time of year? I like to feed horses a slice of raw pumpkin! Let us know below.