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By Jim Smith
Cold weather usually does not affect horses as suddenly or dramatically as it does us humans. Horses are very adaptable to cold weather, but they must be managed sensibly during the winter. The easiest way to understand the impact of cold weather on a horse is based on the heat or energy balance equation. Heat or energy balance is the difference between heat loss and heat gain over time. If heat gain exceeds heat loss over time, the horse will gain weight. However, if losses exceed heat gain, the horse will lose weight. The main source of heat gain is the energy which is calories converted to heat obtained from feed. Other minor sources of heat gain are muscular activity, the sun (which we usually have plenty), blankets or mechanical heat in barns. Most of us don’t blanket or stall our horses in this area. Therefore feed, water and other management issues are the most important.
Horses respond in two ways to cold: acutely or immediately and chronically or adaptive. A sudden drop in temperature will result in the horse changing its behavior. We have all seen horses stop eating and moving to conserve energy. In windy, cold conditions, horses turn their tails to the wind; seek shelter, which can be trees, a hill side, or a shed. Shivering and voluntary muscular activity, and running, can generate body heat but this response is short. The horse’s ability to adapt to cold depends on the duration of the cold weather and the horse’s energy intake. The energy intake is the most critical factor in determining how readily a horse develops a tolerance for cold.
I asked our Extension 4-H Livestock and Equine Specialist at CSU, Dr. Brett Kirch, and DVM and Ph.D., to share some insight on winterizing our horses.
“With the current cold spell, worrying about the horses in the pasture is only natural. The horse is capable of handling cold very well if the winter coat is intact. The hair has natural insulation capabilities and can maintain an animal through very cold spells. Most animals can be left out in the pasture without a blanket as long as the animal is healthy, but there are exceptions to these rules. Coats that are matted down due to mud or ice will cause the animal to lose the natural insulation of the winter coat and will require extra energy in the diet to maintain their weight. If you have clipped your animal for showing during the winter months, a blanket will be necessary, also for the animals that are mature or are hard-keepers and lose weight excessively during the winter, a blanket or stall is highly recommended. If you need to stall your horse during the winter, it is highly recommended that you provide adequate ventilation. Horses that are kept in a closed up barn without adequate ventilation will often lead to a variety of respiratory problems. Cracking the doors or a window to provide air flow will be essential in keeping the horse well during the winter.
“I do not have to tell you that the cost of hay is extremely high as a result of the drought conditions that hit the region over the last two years. In days like this, it is very easy to just purchase the cheapest hay you can find, but this is not always advisable. Mature animals and non-lactating mares in early gestation can easily be maintained on good grass hay during the winter. Good grass hay will generally be 10-12 percent crude protein and will be green when you break open the bale. With the current environment, the use of less than sufficient quality hay is a temptation, but this is an area where we cannot compromise. The horse needs at least 1.5 percent of their body weight in hay daily which equates to 15 pounds of hay daily for a 1,000-pound horse. Feeding an animal less than 1.5 percent of body weight daily will open you up to whole list of potential health problems which least of all could be colic. Everyone is looking for a low cost substitute for hay and in the end there is none. You can use beet pulp, brans, and even complete feeds that include the fiber to help to meet the fiber needs of the horse, but these often are not cheaper alternatives to hay in the diet. As the temperature drops, the energy needed to maintain the animals body weight also increases. Grain can be used as supplemental energy for maintaining the horse in winter. Generally, the addition of one to two pounds per day will offset the loss of weight in the winter. This is in addition to the hay. Working horses, young growing animals, or brood mares in the last trimester of pregnancy may require more grain or alfalfa added to the diet to meet their energy requirements. It is not uncommon when hay is scarce for less than desirable and moldy hays to hit the market. It takes very small amounts of mold in the diet to cause potential health problems for your horse, which can lead to death. It is best to get your hay analyzed by a creditable laboratory so you can make decisions about feeding your animals. When feeding your animals during the winter, it is extremely important to look at the body condition of your animals. During the winter, the coat can disguise weight loss and it is only by handling the animal that you can assess changes due to weight loss. If ribs and vertebrae on the spine become easily viewed or palpated it may be advisable to look at the animal’s diet, deworming program or teeth. All of these can be contributing factors to weight loss.
“One issue that can often affect our horses dramatically during the winter is water quality and supply. It is essential to have sufficient quality and quantity of water available to our horses. In cold weather, make sure water sources don’t freeze up and allow the animals to become dehydrated, which can lead to impactions and colic. The average 1,000-pound horse can drink from 3 to 8 gallons daily, so it is important to maintain a good source of water during the winter months. During the winter, it is common practice to use tank and bucket heaters; they will provide ice-free water for the animal during these cold months, but occasionally check the heaters for stray voltage in the water. It is not unusual to have a heater go bad during the winter and not allow the animals to drink. Some horses will drop their water consumption during the winter, which can lead to colic. Most animals will drink readily when the water in maintained from 40 to 65 degrees during the winter, but if you have a problem with drinking, the use of additional salt in the diet can help to increase water consumption.
“The most important thing to help your horse make it through the winter is you; be observant and remember there is no substitute for hay. Good luck and remember spring is not that far away.”
Thanks to Dr. Kevin Kirch for sharing this information with our readers. I want to emphasize how important the quality of feed and ample water is to keeping our horses in condition to withstand this usually cold winter. Durango was reporting this winter as the coldest in the last 50 years. If you haven’t purchased your total winter supply of hay, be careful when you buy hay in February and March; due to the drought, there could be lot of low quality hay for sale. “Feeding horses is costly; not feeding horses is more costly.”
Food preservation classes
The CSU Extension Office in Archuleta County is offering Back to Basics Food Preservation. We are looking for all who are interested in attending beginner food preservation classes.
Jan. 28 — Jams and Jellies, 1 or 6 p.m.
Feb. 25 — Whole Fruit Canned/Frozen, 1 or 6 p.m.
March 25 — Pickling/Freezing/Drying, 1 or 6 p.m.
April 22 — Tomatoes and Salsa-Canned, Frozen/Drying of Fruits and Vegetables, 1 or 6 p.m.
May 6 — Vegetables/Pressure Canning, 1 or 6 p.m.
Each class will also cover basics of spoilage, food borne illnesses, high-altitude adjustments and canning basics.
Contact the Archuleta County CSU Extension Office at 264-5931 or email@example.com to be added to the class list. Space is limited, so it will be on a first-come, first-served basis. The cost will be $10 per class per person and each person will get to take home one jar filled with what was made during class.
According to the USDA, “Nearly half of the vitamins may be lost within a few days unless the products are cooled or preserved. Within one to two weeks, even refrigerated produce loses half or more of its vitamins. If handled properly and canned promptly after harvest, preserved food can be more nutritious than fresh produce sold in local stores.”
Colorado State University Extension will offer a free radon awareness class and free screening kits on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 4 p.m. Class will be held at the Archuleta County Extension Office.
Fair Book contest
The Archuleta County Fair Board is looking for Archuleta county residents to submit their own art for the cover of the 2013 fair book. The theme for the 2013 fair is “Party With The Animals.” Please submit art/photo work by Feb. 27, 4 p.m., to the CSU Extension Office P.O. Box 370, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147, or drop it off at 344 U.S. 84. Call the Extension Office, 264-5931, with questions.
Colorado State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Colorado counties cooperating. CSU Extension programs are available to all without discrimination. No endorsement of products mentioned is intended, nor is criticism implied of products not mentioned.
Jan. 25 — 4-H Cloverbuds Club meeting — 2 p.m.
Jan. 28 — Back to Basics Food Preservation class — 1 p.m.
Jan. 28 — Back to Basics Food Preservation class — 6 p.m.
Jan. 30 — 4-H Dog Project meeting — 6 p.m.
Jan. 31 — Colorado Master Gardener Program — 9 a.m.
Feb. 2 — 4-H Dog Project meeting — 10 a.m.