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Preparing Your Barn for the Winter

By: Ann Compton

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Depending on where you live, winter may be getting ready to throw you some difficult weather. The best time to gear up for it at the barn is before a major snow or ice storm hits.

Hopefully, you've prepared your horses with the necessary shoeing for icy turnout conditions, and cleaned, repaired and stored blankets. Proper storage of tack, if it sits unused, is also crucial.

Air Quality

The proper temperature of a barn is one of the most debated topics concerning horses. It is impossible to recommend a range of temperatures, because by following a precise range of temperature, you might be neglecting to provide adequate ventilation. There are competing needs to maintain nice coats and happy workers on one end, and healthy lungs in the horses on the other.

One thing is for sure. Don't seal your barn up so tightly that there is poor ventilation for the horses. This is unhealthy for them and can cause respiratory problems, particularly small airway disease. In later stages, the cloistering can result in heaves. A good indicator of poor barn ventilation is the smell of ammonia, especially in the morning before doors and windows are swung opened. Once you can smell ammonia, the air quality is very poor. Another sign of poor ventilation is that your barn is considerably warmer, often up to 10 degrees, than outdoor temperature.

"In the competing interests between human warmth and good ventilation for horses, the horses must win. Most people do not realize how serious the effects of repetitively enclosing horses in a poorly ventilated area can be," says Andrew Hoffman, Director of the Lung Function Testing Laboratory, Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. "Recent studies have revealed that stabling, even in the best of circumstances, can contribute to worsening of lung function. This is an insidious problem that you may not recognize as obvious respiratory signs, but contributes to poor performance and exercise intolerance in the training months. Only in the extreme case do you see actual heaves. Most horses suffer in silence."

If you have a small backyard barn, open doors and windows each day when you clean stalls so that dust can be cleared out. Make sure your barn has vents in the ceiling, and eaves or windows that promote air flow into the stalls and upward to the ceiling. Your horses will be happier and healthier with fresh air circulating, no matter what the temperature.

Encourage Water Consumption

Water is always a problem in the winter. When it's cold, it freezes quickly and horses usually don't want to break through it to drink. If you keep a bucket filled with water outside while the horses are turned out, it helps to place a small rubber ball or two in the water – dog toys about the size of a tennis ball are good. They will float on top and keep the water moving so it doesn't freeze as quickly.

When you bring your horses in from turnout or feed dinner, add hot water to their buckets to encourage them to drink, suggests Dr. Mark Baus of Fairfield Equine Associations in Newtown, Conn. Your horses will begin to look forward to their evening equine 'tea' equivalent.

Use soft, pliable black rubber buckets in the horses' stalls for water because they are pretty much indestructible. When the water freezes overnight to a solid block, you can drop them on the ground and step on them to break the ice up. A small ice scraper like you'd use for your windshield also is helpful to scrape out the last remains of ice in buckets.

Maintain the Barn and Keep Extra Supplies

Check barn drains, pipes and gutters to avoid potential problems. Clean the gutters so they are free of leaves and debris. If your drains freeze, use boiling water or antifreeze to help get them open. Don't use antifreeze, though, if the drain empties anywhere in your paddock or pasture.

Pack any holes in stall floors with sand or clay so they don't collect water and freeze, making for slippery footing and colder stalls.

Take the time to stock up on some extra barn supplies, too, like double-ended snaps, an extra gate latch in case one breaks and a short length of chain. In an emergency, you can use a length of chain and double-ended snaps to keep a gate closed until you can get it fixed. It's also a good idea to have a few extra fence posts and rails or boards on hand in case a winter ice storm brings a tree down on your fence.

Spread used wet bedding from your stalls on your paddocks or paths when they become icy or muddy. It's a quick fix for footing and provides excellent traction.

Spray barn doors and sliding mechanisms with silicone spray lubricant so they won't stick.

Storage of Medications

Make sure your equine medicine chest is full and up to date. It's a good idea, though, to store medications like creams or ointments in a heated tack room or your house because they will harden in cold weather and can be difficult to use. Check expiration dates on medications and discard those that have expired.

Don't Overfeed

Reduce the amount of grain you feed if your horses are accustomed to turnout, and bad weather confines them to their stalls for several days. In this respect, you need to be adaptable, since the temperature and activity of the horses can shift dramatically over the winter months. Although this adds complexity to your work, you will decrease the risk of colic and tying up, as well as overfeeding in the long run.

"Horses are naturally less active, even on turnout, during the winter," Dr. Baus notes. "It simply is not necessary to feed them more." Most horses are quite comfortable on their normal ration unless the temperature is below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and then a little more hay will keep their digestive track working.

If your horses eat sweet feed, you may find that it's tough to dish up when the temperature drops below freezing and it becomes a hard, solid block. A clean garden claw hung by the feed bin serves to loosen the feed and make it easier to scoop.

Some Entertainment

If a snow, ice or rainstorm confines your horses to their stalls for a day or two, keep a radio playing. Believe it or not, it does help alleviate their boredom. Experts at the U.S. Equestrian Team Headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., believe that a combination of soft music and talk is best.

Now, start counting the days till spring.

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