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More Advice & Tips for Caring for Your Horse in the Winter

Wil & Beverly Howe
Wil Howe Ranch Newsletter, Winter 1998


   Last fall, we talked about how important it is to handle your horses occasionally throughout the winter, and that an occasional round pen session will keep your horse's attitude and priorities in check.  Also, being cooped up in stalls in the winter causes boredom, so be sure they get a chance to romp and let off some steam daily, and that due to less handling they can become pushy and rude, especially if they're turned out ina  pasture situation.  Running out with several horses will cause them to become more independent and herd-oriented rather than dependant on you and your leadership.

   In addition, there are a few other things we think are important when handling your horses during the winter months.
   1) Dealing With Mud  Be sure your paddocks have good drainage and that your horses can get up out of the mud.  When we bring our horses in the barn at night, we pick their feet. This allows their soles to dry out at night while they're on the wood floor in straw or shavings.  Also, during severe muddy times we hose all mud off their legs and ankles before putting them in their stalls or tie stalls.  Standing in mud up to their ankles day in and day out will cause them to develop "scratches", sore weeping lesions on their pasterns which can even go up the cannon bones, causing their legs to swell and become sore.  This can be avoided if their legs are kept clean and allowed to dry daily.  Your local vet can also recommend medications to aleve and heal the lesions.
   2) Tack Care  One thing Wil has always insisted on is an insulated, heated tack room.  He believes in taking care of the tools of his trade, his tack.  He likes his nice leather headstalls, reins, and saddles to stays soft, supple, and free of mildew.  If they are allowed to get cold and damp, the leather swells and becomes stiff, hard to handle and change buckle adjustments.  A heated tack room also keeps your bits at room temperature and much more pleasing for the horse to accept.  Your saddle pads, cooler sheets, splint and bell boots will dry overnight as well.
   3) Proper Cooling Out  When riding your horses in the winter, it is tricky to cool them out properly.  When their thick, long, winter coats are soaked with sweat, getting a horse to dry without chilling is very important.  It always amazes us to see people haul their horse to an indoor arena in the winter, team rope all evening, and load a wet, steamy horse with his hair matted into a trailer and take off.  Treat your horse like you'd like to be treated--not babied, but with respect.  Get a cooler sheet.
    Wil was a cowboy for years and wasn't introduced to "cooler sheets" until he was on the track training race horses.  Everyone used these big wool sheets to cool the hot horses because they absorb the moisture and pull it off the horse's body.  After 15 minutes to a half hour they'll be completely dry and warm underneath and the blanket will be steamy and damp on the outside.  Then you can then curry him off, fluff the hair, and turn him out.
   Today, we use these simple cooler sheets made of quality absorbent dacron that can be found in the Wil Howe Practical Use Tack & Accessories page.  But back in those days on the track, Wil, being the backwards cowboy that he was at the time, used old wool Army blankets for his first coolers and they worked just fine
    Years later, when we had a large training facility in southern Oregon where the humidity was high, the horses seemed to take forever to dry in the winter.  We often worked  our cutting horses at night, so Wil came up with a great idea for drying the horse.  He completely enclosed one of our 12' x 12' box stalls, covering the open front and ceiling with plywood, leaving a 2' s 6' hole in the ceiling for the steam to escape.  He hung a heat lamp in there and two wall feeders with tie rings.  He'd tie his futurity colts in there two at a time with their cooler sheets on to dry after a workout.  It worked like an oven!  By the time he was done riding another horse, one would be dry and ready to rotate.  Trainers, take note!
    4) Last but not Least . . . Blankets   We blanket our horses in the winter only because they're offered for sale and they look nicer when their hair is slicker!  We wouldn't otherwise, but we no longer have the nice convenience of indoor arenas to turn them out in the wet season.
    Our horses get turned out to romp together in outside paddocks in rocks, mud or pasture.  We find the industrial strength 1,000 denier cordura nylon outer shell is the very best for durability.  But above all, it's the fit that's critical.  Make sure you have the right size blanket, especially if you plan on leaving it on him for long periods of time.  Two problems occur if the fit or cut of the blanket is not right for your horse:  it can pull against the point of your horse's shoulder and rub the hair off, or, worse yet, they can rub and bruise the withers.
   We had one horse that unbeknownst to us had a blanket that didn't fit well.  We noticed he became increasingly irritable during the winter and cranky when saddled, until one day out of the open blue sky he threw a complete bucking fit and severely injured Wil.  We couldn't figure it out until we looked closer at the problem. The blanket had actually rubbed the horse to the point of bruising, but the hair was still there so we had not noticed it.  It later abscessed, and then the hair came off with the skin!  Poor horse and Wil.  We now check the fit closely and see how much pressure is pulling against the wither.
    We've seen the same thing occur with horses when the saddle didn't fit and rubbed the wither area, so keep this in mind and check your blanket's fit regularly.  Also, check your horse's weight regularly.  Your horse can eat up to twice as much when the temperatures drop.  A blanket can hide a lot!

    By taking advantage of these tips, things should run smoother for you and your horse this winter.  See ya in the spring!  

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