For horse owners, the winter months bring icy walkways, frozen buckets, frostbitten fingers and snow drifts to wade through on the daily trek to the barn. It’s easy to see why this is one of the hardest times of year when it comes to horse keeping. There are ways, however, to help ease the worst of your winter woes and make life simpler and more enjoyable for you and your horse when the mercury begins to drop.

Keep your horse’s water ice-free

Constant access to fresh water can be considered one of the most important aspects of horse care. Canadian winters, however, can freeze buckets solid within hours and leave your horse with no access to a water source. Made up of 60 per cent water, your horse requires between 30 and 45 litres of fresh water a day. Horses who don’t consume enough can suffer from dehydration, which is a serious concern that can result in kidney damage and even colic.

Using heated buckets is one of the most efficient ways to keep your horse’s water from turning into ice during freezing temperatures. Typically, these buckets have an electrical heater element in the base of the bucket and a cable that should be plugged into a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) protected outlet, out of reach of your horse. Since the cords are not usually longer than six feet, an outlet will need to be installed (consult an electrician). Further, since horses have a tendency to fuss with their buckets, use a bucket holder to mount the bucket securely to the stall wall to prevent damage to the electrical cord. Some models even have an auto-refill feature. When you are selecting a bucket, be sure to check the temperature rating, as it should match or exceed the coldest temperature you can expect in your area.

Insulated buckets or insulated bucket holders are another option that will keep ice from forming quickly. Outdoor water tubs can be a bit more problematic when it comes to keeping them clear of ice, but various heated water troughs for outdoor use are available including solar-powered ones. For non-insulated outdoor troughs, make a hole in the ice no bigger than eight inches. This will provide sufficient room for your horse to drink, and the remaining ice will help insulate the water in the trough.

Increase traction

Icy walkways can present a hazard to even the most surefooted of horses (and handlers). A simple slip could put your horse out of commission for weeks, months, or even permanently. A horse who is constantly slipping and sliding can easily pull tendons, strain muscles and even break bones.

A simple way to boost traction is to spread a de-icing product, available at any local hardware store, in liquid or pellet form, on ice-laden areas where it will help melt a frozen slick quickly. Look for a de-icer that specifically states it is not harmful to animals, though, keeping in mind that the chemicals in some products can be toxic to your dogs and cats.

Note that according to Health Canada, road salts that contain inorganic chloride salts are toxic. As such, they should not be used in areas that are horse-accessible. Studies have shown that these salts are harmful to groundwater systems, soil, organisms, plant life and some birds and mammals. A more natural option is to toss kitty litter or sand onto icy areas; although it will not cause the ice to melt, it will become embedded in the ice and increase grip. Working proactively, you could go one step further and mix in some small stones with the muddy, destined to be icy, areas before the ground freezes.

Prepare your stable

Getting your stable ready for winter requires a bit of forethought and preparation, but can help take some of the challenge out of winter horse care. Make a plan to winterize your stable before the snow flies and you’ll save yourself from a giant headache in the future.

Check to make sure all water lines and faucets are properly insulated before it hits freezing. It is certainly easier to apply pipe insulation and heat tape in the fall than it is to deal with frozen, burst pipes in the dead of winter

Outdoor hoses should also be drained and stored inside as well as any water tanks that may go unused throughout the colder months.

Keep your gutters clear of debris to prevent ice build-up that could eventually cause damage to the eaves trough and roof.

If you don’t have a heated tack or feed room, remove any items that may freeze when the temperature dips below zero. This may include partial bottles of fly spray, shampoo, or even some first aid related supplies that should not be stored in freezing temperatures.

Installing rubber floor mats or tiles in stalls and barn aisles will help prevent your horse from slipping when he comes in with icy hooves.

Prepare your horse for icy conditions 

There are plenty of options out there when it comes to winter gear for your horse, but what does he really need to get by?

Some people advocate going barefoot in the winter. If your horse is shod, it’s likely your farrier will recommend adding studs and pads. Studs will give your horse extra grip on frozen or icy footing, where he might slip with regular shoes, while pads will help keep snow from packing into your horse’s hooves. Discuss your horse’s needs with your farrier before the winter weather strikes (see page 16 for more advice on pulling shoes in the winter).

Horses being ridden in areas with lots of snow may need protective legwear, such as bell boots or splints. Ice encrusted snow can easily cut your horse’s leg as he tromps through it.

Although many horses go ‘au natural’ through the winter, growing thick wooly coats, if you plan on riding heavily or showing through the chilly winter season, then you will likely be clipping and blanketing your horse until spring. Winter blankets come in a multitude of styles and densities; the one your horse will require depends on your local climate.

Should your wooly blanket-free horse develop a layer of ice and snow on his coat, you must chip it away, groom and dry him off if possible. Your horse’s winter coat is designed to fluff up in order to retain heat, which it can’t do when frozen and wet.