It is late October and the horse shows, trail rides, and other equine activities are drawing to a close. Well, not really totally shut down, but there are fewer opportunities to go ride somewhere, plus the weather is a lot less likely to cooperate with riding plans. It’s not really in the best interest of your horse to just turn out into the pasture for the winter and let all the lessons learned from training and riding just fade away over the winter. Nor is it good to allow your horse to get too much condition from incorrect rationing and not enough exercise. Making a plan now to keep your horse in good shape during the winter months will pay dividends when the trail riding and horse show season starts again next year, which is March in this area of North Carolina. Here are a few things to pay attention to:
Nutrition – don’t let your horse need to work off “extra” pounds next spring! A horse owner needs to make sure that the horse is getting the needed energy, protein, minerals, and vitamins needed for the level of activity the horse will be at during the winter. Feeding extra energy to a horse that is not exercising much leads to those unwanted pounds, so get a forage test on the hay to be fed, and supplement only the energy and protein needed to meet the needs of the horse – and no more! See your NC Cooperative Extension Livestock Agent for assistance with forage testing. Ensure that minerals and vitamins are available during the winter months through the ration or through access to free choice mineral supplements.
Activity – Rather than just turning out for the winter months, consider setting an activity level and routine during those months when the weather may not be conducive to riding a lot. Exercise doesn’t always mean getting into the saddle and riding. Working the horse in a round pen on a lunge line can reach a level of activity that will keep the hose’s muscle tone good and will help the horse reach mid-season form more quickly next spring. When the weather is good for riding, work on some things with the horse that were not up to par last season, either in the show ring or on the trail. This can include working on loading and unloading the trailer, waiting for the rider commands, or getting used to a certain obstacle so that will not be a problem at the next show or trail ride. Set up a calendar for the different activities planned and stick to it. Your horse will appreciate both the attention and the company!
Grooming – A little attention paid to grooming during the off months will help the horse stay clean, will help build the bond between horse and rider, and will help identify any physical or health problems that me not be that noticeable from a distance. Early detection of these problems can help get an infection cleared up before it becomes a major inflammation. Checking feet will get foot problems identified and fixed, and checking teeth can make sure that any dental needs are identified and addressed before wasting feed and losing body condition of the horse. Frequent brushing gets rid of dirt and loose hair, making the coat more efficient in handling adverse weather conditions. Untangling and removing foreign objects from the horse’s mane frequently will save a lot of time and aggravation when preparing for the first horse show next spring.
Having a plan for working with horses during the off-season makes a lot of sense over just feeding and letting them run loose in the pasture for a few months. Monitoring activity levels, knowing what is being fed, and keeping up with grooming chores, farrier needs, and general health items will yield dividends for both the horse and the horse owner.
For more information on horse care, nutrition, or health matters, contact your NC Cooperative Extension Livestock Agent, or the Cooperative Extension Center in your state.