The onslaught of winter means snowmen and hot chocolate on the best of days, but don't forget about the snow, ice, and freezing temperatures. As the seasons change, horse owners face a number of difficult challenges. Not only are days shorter, but the weather changes how we take care of our horses and manage our barns. The best thing you can do is start preparing early. As soon as the leaves start to fall, you should be thinking about what needs to be done before winter takes over full force.
Your specific tasks will depend on your barn set up, but there are a few things that every horse owner needs to do. Here's a basic checklist to make sure your horse barn is ready for winter.
1. Evaluate Your Watering System
Keeping your horses well watered in the winter will be one of your biggest challenges. That's because water freezes in cold temperatures. Your normal tanks, troughs, and buckets will likely freeze over every few hours when winter is at its worst. Horses can't drink ice, and research even shows horses drink less when their water is very cold (which is a bad thing). They prefer their drinking water to be between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can trudge your way to every water source every morning and night to break up ice, but that might not be enough. You might want to consider getting a stock tank heater or heated stall buckets. Investing in that winter equipment will make your life in winter a lot easier and benefit your horses as well.
2. Tend to Your Pasture
The grasses in your pasture will be dormant in the cold, and fall is prime time for pasture care. If you want a healthy grazing area come spring and summer, you'll need to put in a little work now. Most experienced horse owners recommend moving horses to other areas in the fall to allow pastures a chance to recover. You want the grass to be at least four inches tall so it has a good place to start come spring.
While your horses are elsewhere, now is also a good time to spread manure or compost on the pasture. Lay at least a half-inch of nutrient-dense matter on the ground to set the plants up for a good growing season.
3. Make Sure There's Enough Lighting
One of the problems with winter is that the sun sets a lot earlier than it used to. By the time you get to the barn, it's probably already full dark. Older horse barns are notorious for poor lighting, so this might be something to address before the days get too short. You need your stalls to be bright enough so you can provide basic care to your horses, and you need to be able to see in the aisles and work areas.
The lighting outside the barn should also be a concern. You don't want to be tripping down the dark path to the barn or fumbling for the door. Feeding by flashlight is a lot harder than it sounds. Hiring an electrician will be worth it.
4. Add Footing Material to High-Traffic Regions
Besides snow and ice, you'll also deal with a lot of mud this winter. When the ground is a sloppy mess, life gets a lot harder for you, your horses, and anyone you have working around the barn. It's good practice to prepare for the inevitable mud sometime in the fall.
Locate the high traffic areas in and around your barn. These could be in front of gates, walkways, or sacrifice areas. It could also be the not-quite-driveway that you use to drop off feed and equipment. Laying down some kind of absorbent material will help mitigate your mud problem. Crushed rock, wood chips, and sand usually work well.
5. Make Sure You're Ready for an Emergency
Winter storms are no joke. When a blizzard knocks out the power, you need to care for your horses in an emergency situation. If you're lucky enough to have a generator, double check to make sure you have the fuel you need. While you're checking, when was the last time you replaced the batteries in your flashlight? You want flashlights hanging in strategic places throughout the horse barn along with a stock of fresh batteries.
Other things that will come in handy are a battery-powered radio and a cell phone charger for your car.
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6. Wash and Organize Blankets
Your horse's blankets have most likely been sitting in a pile untouched for months. You have no idea if mice or moths got to the material. And you really don't want to wait until it's freezing cold and sleeting to find out.
Not everyone chooses to blanket their horses in the winter (read this article for more info), but it's always better to be prepared than leave your horse out in the cold and wet. Check your blankets for tears and make sure they still fit your horses before the weather gets too bad. Make sure they're clean and put them somewhere you can easily access in the coming months.