Snow is beautiful but it certainly creates some challenges for horsekeeping! I consider myself lucky that here in the Mid-Atlantic we usually only get a handful of significant snowfalls each winter. Although that does mean that rather than sticking to a set routine, I get to agonize anew every time over how to manage the horses and handle the aftermath!
Although I started out keeping my horses in during the day in summer and in during the night in winter, with the construction of my dry lot I can now stall my horses as little as possible without them demolishing the pasture. So the past couple of winters I've avoided stalling almost entirely by closing them in the dry lot overnight and opening the gate to one section of the pasture during the day. This has worked out really well, as it significantly reduces my chore time (especially in the cold, dark mornings before work, when all I have to do is open a gate) and allows the horses to be out moving around as much as possible. Knowing that they have a shed to retreat to in bad weather, I never have to worry about them. I love love love my dry lot! (See more on its construction here.) As well as being generally useful and wonderful, my dry lot gives me more turnout options during snowy weather. In this post I discuss the factors I consider when managing my horses during snow and cold weather.
Horse comfort: Some people tend to project their temperature preferences on their horses. "If I'm cold with a sweater and coat on, Dobbin needs a heavy blanket and a hood and to stay inside tonight!" Keep in mind that horses are designed to handle cold weather much better than humans. Their respiratory system, digestive system, insulating coats, and sheer muscle mass all enable them to be comfortable outside at temperatures that would leave most of us wanting to curl up in front of a cozy fireplace. They may even be warmer outside moving around than stuck in a small box in the barn. Keep in mind that if you do turn out in cold weather, it's very important that they have shelter from rain and wind as well as ample hay to fuel the internal furnace.
As far as blanketing, while I do own turnout sheets and medium-weight turnout blankets for each of my horses, I leave my unclipped horses naked unless they actually need clothes. As temperatures start to drop in the fall, I monitor their comfort every chilly morning. If they seem happy and comfortable, I let them stay au naturale. If they are running around to stay warm, huddling in the shelter, losing weight, or shivering, they need to be blanketed appropriately! (Too much blanketing is, in my opinion, worse than not enough because the horse can sweat and then become dangerously chilled.)
This won't apply to those poor people who don't have a long-ear in their life 😉, but Dominick the Donkey also gets blanketed during winter precipitation because as a desert animal, his coat lacks the waterproofing oils of the horses. This leads to adorable morning scenes like the icicle donkey below:
Footing: A bigger risk in my mind than cold horses is horses running around on dangerous footing. Again, fresh snow is not usually a big deal, especially if it's a nice, powdery, dry snow. The horses love to play in it!
|Nothing like fresh powdery snow to help show off that nice big trot...|
|...until you take a bad step and faceplant in a drift. Okay, he's not the most graceful horse in the world but he came out of it with no harm done.|
|The sand-and-stonedust mixture in front of the shed is saturated from the melting snow, and by morning it will be frozen into hard lumps. I've already picked as much manure as I can but don't look too closely...it's not what I'd call clean!|
Cleanup: I pick manure from the dry lot daily to prevent it from mixing into the stonedust footing and ruining my expensive investment, and picking manure from snow is THE WORST! So when there's significant snow, I sometimes do keep the horses inside overnight just because stall cleaning is a million times easier than the old poop-ball-in-the-snow treasure hunt. And as bad as that is with fresh snow, just wait until the snow partially melts then refreezes, encapsulating the manure in a shell of icy sludge and cementing it to the ground! At that point, you need a metal pitchfork and sometimes a sledgehammer to chisel it out. Once the snow melts, I have to do some tedious extra cleanup to prevent the now-soggy manure bits from mixing into the footing.
|What's the only thing that can make cleaning manure in the snow more difficult and annoying? A stubborn ass standing between the manure and the muck tub!|
|This is as clean as it's going to get for a while.|