Tips for winter
to spring acclimation
Dr. Bray's Corner
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- Horse owners know that during the winter months, weight loss, conditioning loss or weight gain is to be expected and will depend on the length and harshness of the season.
- If you have not been evaluating and recording your horse’s body condition score, you should start. Monitor and take note of any changes every two weeks. Go to Dr. Bray’s Corner for instruction on Body Condition Scoring.
- Be sure your horse is current with vaccinations. Annual vaccinations include Tetanus, Encephalomyelitis (Eastern, Western & Venezuelan), Rhinopneumonitis, Influenza, West Nile and Rabies. Potomac Horse Fever and Strangles may also be considered, but check with your veterinarian if these diseases are an issue in your region.
- Evaluate your deworming program and revisit the rotational practice relative to the active ingredients. Ask your veterinarian for guidance.
- Horses that are shown or transported will most likely require a negative Coggins test and documentation of the negative test.
- Be sure your horse is given adequate time to adjust to a new routine, including any changes in exercise/conditioning program, dry lot buddies, pasture grazing, equipment, and feed.
- Horses should be trimmed every six to eight weeks, but in an effort to save a few dollars it’s not uncommon to extend that period during the winter.
- If the horse is barefoot during the winter and you put shoes on, provide a couple of days to acclimate to the new footwear.
Grooming & Getting Rid of Winter Hair Coat
- During the winter, grooming, bathing, and brushing may not occur as frequently as during warmer seasons.
- Benefits of Grooming:
- Removes dirt and mud and will reduce/disrupt the population of bacteria, insects, and pathogens that can reside in a horse’s coat.
- Helps increase circulation and stimulate oil production by the skin.
- Provides an opportunity to notice any scratches, irritations, minor infections or ticks especially in areas not easily observed such around the tail head, genitals, or between the legs.
- As days grow longer, a horse will shed its winter coat. A working horse with a longer coat may retain more body heat; a longer hair coat will increase the drying time after sweating or an equid- bath.
- Curry comb grooming stimulates blood flow to the dermal layers which will help encourage shedding.
- Body clipping works, but there is an art to the technique. Be aware of weather forecast and changes; temperatures drop during spring nights.
- Lower protein and fat diets have been associated with poor coat shedding. Clearly horses that are fed balanced diets, are in good health, and have a good body weight year round will shed more quickly as day light increases.
- Adding ¼ cup of oil per day to the ration has benefits with shedding and maintaining a shiny hair coat.
Usually horses return to work in early Spring, preparing for the show season and/or pleasure riding. The additional work, and perhaps owner sensitivity to nutrition, often precipitates changes in diet. Horse owners should follow the guidelines for dietary adjustments.
Change in the daily diet represents any increase, decrease, addition, or replacement of the feed.
- Hay – Changes in types of hay, such as legume to grass, grass to legume, or grass to grass will determine the rate of change. When changing from legume hay (for example alfalfa) to grass hay or grass hay to legume hay, the recommendation is 1/2 – 1.0 lb change-over per day. When changing from one type of grass hay to another, the recommendation is 3/4 – 1.5 lb change-over per day.
- Concentrates – For changes in concentrates, such as grains, grain base mixes, commodities (oats, corn, barley, wheat bran, etc.), or balanced feed mixes, the recommendation is approximately 1/4 lb change-over per day. Some circumstances may require changes on an every other day basis.
- Fat – High fat feeds, such as oil or rice bran, must be introduced gradually. For oil, the recommendation is ¼ cup per day with increases every other day; for rice bran the recommendation is ¼ lb every other day.
In some regions, pasture is a major forage source and in others the pasture forage availability is a minor complement to the hay that is fed daily. Horses that have been managed on hay during the winter need to be introduced to spring pasture gradually. The micros (bacteria) that reside in the horse’s gut have a major role in the digestive process and require time to acclimate to dietary changes.
- The transition to pasture should be slow and gradual. The recommendation below is a conservative approach to minimize the risk of colic. Some horses adapt more quickly than others. Thus, observation and experience with your horse should be your governing factors. If a horse is on pasture year round, he still needs pasture management.
- Grazing time is best in the morning when fructan levels in plants are lower. During new plant growth, fructan levels are high and higher during specific times of the day. Therefore, limiting grazing time during early spring is strongly recommended.
- Introduction Protocol:
- Day 1 – 30 minutes
- Day 2 – 7 – Increase by 15 minutes per day
- Day 7 – 10 Increase by 30 minutes until maximize at 4 hours of grazing time
- Maintain 4 hours grazing time for 2 more weeks
The design of the horse’s digestive system does not permit adjustments to feed changes rapidly or easily. During the spring, plant growth in pastures and cooled season grasses produce higher levels of a nonstructural carbohydrate that consists of the sugar fructose, named fructan. Horses cannot enzymatically break down fructan, but the nonstructural carbohydrate is digested by specific microorganisms that reside in the gut. The microbial digestion of the carbohydrate produces more acid in the hindgut. Thus, higher fructan levels produce a more acidic environment, which leads to a shift in the bacteria population. This shift in population numbers can cause components to be released, which enter the bloodstream and precipitate a series of physiological changes that can cause laminitis.
Since fructan levels are lower in the morning, this is the best grazing time. Little to no grazing time in the afternoon/early is suggested. Fructan concentrations in the spring grasses are higher in the afternoon, particularly on warm and sunny days. The current information indicates that fructan concentrations are highest at night when it’s cooler. Some studies suggest that 40° F is the temperature threshold that influences fructan levels. At nighttime, when the temperature drops below 40° F, the fructan concentrations are higher. During cool nights, plants do not grow as much. Less plant growth translates to using less stored sugar, which means higher levels for grazing horses.