Tips & Advice

Because of their size and strength, horses are often misunderstood by people who don’t know much about them. They often assume horses require little care – just stick them in a field and they’ll be fine. They also tend to underestimate the safety aspects of being around horses – safety for both horse and human. Finally, many novice horse people, and even some experienced ones, don’t understand horse behaviour and communication and so handle the horse inappropriately.

The information presented in the following fact sheets and articles is intended as an introduction to basic horse care. More detailed information is available in many excellent books and a growing number of web sites. Always remember that the primary source of health care advice for your horse should be your veterinarian who knows the specifics of your animal and your situation. If in doubt, ask your veterinarian.

  • Horse Behaviour
  • Buying a Horse
  • Looking After Horses
  • Where to Keep Your Horse
  • Feeding
  • Shelter and Fencing
  • Spring Care
  • Winter Care
  • Doing What’s Best

Horse Behaviour

One of the most interesting and most difficult aspects of horsemanship is learning to understand our horses and relate to them on horse terms. It always fascinates me that people consider themselves superior to animals and yet expect animals to learn our language rather than the other way around. Horses and dogs both learn to respond to complicated human demands but people often misinterpret basic horse and dog communication.

Building trust

As prey animals, horses have a very strong sense of self-preservation. Their instincts are to run quickly from any threat and to stay within the security of the herd. With good training and positive experiences behind him and a confident rider sitting on top, a mature horse will follow directions instead of instinct to a large extent. But we have to realize that the flight and herd instincts are just below the surface. It’s our responsibility to build the trust that keeps instinct in check and the horse manageable.

Trust between people or between people and animals is built on a history of positive interaction. In order to trust someone, we have to believe they will respond consistently and appropriately in a given situation and that they will follow through with what they say. The same goes for horses. To build trust, we must respond appropriately and consistently to their behaviour or anticipated behaviour and once started on a course of action, follow through.

Understanding what horses are saying

Consistency and follow-through are simply a matter of self-discipline on our part, but appropriate response is only possible if we understand what we are responding to. In other words, we have to learn to understand what our horses are saying. After all, why should a horse trust a person who responds angrily to her fear on the one hand, or sheepishly to her bravado on the other?

Because people are verbal, we tend to dismiss other forms of communication. Horses don’t use words. They don’t even use sounds to any great extent. But watch horses as they interact with one another and with people. Their ears, eyes, muzzles, tails and body posture are all communicating.

Horses are social animals. As herd members, they interact with other horses continually and use a system of communication to let herd-mates know what they want and don’t want. (Animal behaviourists disagree about how much animal communication is under conscious control and how much is automatic reaction to a stimulus, but that argument needn’t concern us here.)

Calls, body positions, movements, and odours are all methods of communication. We can’t sense the odour or chemical messages, but we can see and hear the others. Sit on the fence some sunny afternoon and be a silent spectator. See what signals you can recognize. The ability to understand horse body language makes our association with horses more rewarding and safer.

Equine body language

The most obvious signal is overall body outline. It’s easy to tell the difference between the high, rounded outline of an excited horse and the flat outline of a relaxed one.


Ears are good indicators. They point in the direction of the horse’s attention. Both ears pricked forward may look pretty, but when you’re riding, you want at least one ear on you. Ears pinned back indicate anger or fear. (Fear and anger are closely related in people too.) Ears moving back and forth often indicate uncertainty. Some beginners misinterpret any backward pointing of the ears as anger, but it’s the horse with ears flat back who’s liable to kick.


The tail is also very expressive. ‘High-tailing’ is a well-known sign of excitement, but did you realize horses flatten their tails between their legs like dogs when frightened? A horse who scoots away from something with his tail tucked under is truly scared. Tail lashing is a sign of irritation and annoyance. A kinked tail is a sign of submissive fear and often precedes a buck.

Facial signals

More subtle for us are facial signals. In her book The Horse’s Mind, Lucy Rees has a diagram of mouth and nose signals. A long nose and tight mouth show anxiety and fear. Horses will also show ‘worry wrinkles’ above the eyes. Watch a horse being taught something new. At first, his mouth will be tight. Then in the moment he understands, you’ll often see the mouth relax and chew.

A wrinkled nose indicates annoyance and disgust. A horse threatening to bite has an open mouth and perhaps bared teeth. (Not the same as ‘mouthing’ in foals which is a submissive gesture.) A long nose with a slightly open mouth shows the horse wants to mutual groom, a gesture you may have seen while currying your horse. It becomes the characteristic long nose, drawn-back lower lip and extended neck when you find ‘the spot’.

What I have mentioned here just skims the surface of horse communication. Thoughtful observation of horses combined with reading books and articles in such magazines as EQUUS and Practical Horseman will teach you lots. Learning to understand what our horses are telling us — and responding appropriately — makes a huge difference in our relationship with them.

Are You Ready to Buy Your First Horse?

Before you decide to buy a horse, there are a couple of things to consider. First, are you ready for a horse of your own. Secondly, can you afford to own a horse in terms of both money and time.

The first step to horse ownership is learning to ride

Are you ready for a horse? In my opinion, if you are not yet a competent rider, the answer is “no.” It is fairer and safer for both you and the horse to begin your horse career on a sensible lesson horse under good instruction. This is true for both adults and children. When you have ridden enough to feel comfortable and under control at walk, trot and canter, and to know this really is how you want to spend a good chunk of your leisure time, then is time enough to think about a horse of your own. Ask your instructor whether they think you are ready. If it’s your child who wants the horse, let them help clean tack, muck out stalls and otherwise experience the work involved with horses.

Horses are expensive and time-consuming

So you’re taking lessons. Can you afford a horse? The first thing to realize is that the purchase price is only the beginning and no, your first horse is not an investment. He has to eat 365 days a year. He’ll need a farrier to trim his feet every six to eight weeks, and depending on his feet and what kind of work he’s doing, possibly shoes which really add to the cost. He’ll need deworming every couple of months, yearly innoculations, and probably annual dental care. If he gets sick or injured, you’ll have extra vet bills as well. Then you’ll need to buy tack and equipment for your horse and proper riding clothes for yourself. And those lessons are more important than ever.

A horse is expensive and time-consuming, but so are other sports. If you know up front what you’re getting into, and you have sufficient disposable income on an ongoing basis, the return in terms of enjoyment and satisfaction far outweighs the cost. You’re not buying sports equipment, you’re buying guardianship of a companion for many years to come.

Always remember, though, that you don’t have to own your own horse to enjoy horseback riding. You can take lessons on school horses while you get to know your horsey neighbours and enjoy their horses. But if you are ready, there’s nothing like a horse of your own.

Finding a first horse

Allow plenty of time for your search. You will learn a lot about horses and yourself in the process and find a more suitable horse in the end. In the beginning, temperament and soundness are the most important considerations. Your ideal horse might be a gelding or a mare of any breed or colour.

Six Steps to Horse Ownership

  • Learn and practice horse skills.
  • Decide what you are looking for.
  • Line up prospects.
  • Interview potential candidates.
  • Get a second opinion.
  • Arrange a trial period if possible.

We’ve already talked about the first step and I can’t stress its importance enough.

Decide what you’re looking for

Next make a list of the characteristics of your ideal horse, including price. Bear in mind who will be riding and what kind of horse activities they’ll be pursuing. Ask your instructor for advice. As you advance in your riding career, you’ll become more specialized in your interests, but at this stage, you’re probably looking for a horse you can enjoy on the trail, take some lessons on, and perhaps enter local open horse shows. No stallions. No babies.

The most important criteria are that he or she is well broke and sensible. That means you’re looking for a horse who’s been ridden regularly by a good rider for several years. This horse is at least six or seven years old and preferably much older. Many horses today lead active lives well into their twenties. Forget the two-year-old, no matter how quiet he or she is. If you or your child is going to jump, look for a horse with jumping experience. Look for a horse you can ride now, not one you hope to be able to ride a year from now. Be realistic about your current riding level. Nothing spoils the joy of riding faster than being over-mounted. You’re looking for a horse who knows more than you do but is accepting enough to let you catch up and then go on learning together.

Line up prospects

Once you have your horse’s job description and qualifications, you can start looking. Ask around about horses for sale, starting with your instructor. Check the classifieds. Read bulletin boards at tack stores and stables. Don’t go to auctions. If a horse sounds promising, interview the owner on the phone. Make sure they know what kind of horse you’re looking for. If the horse passes the phone test, round up a horse friend and go and have a look in person.

Interview prospective candidates

First, does the horse look healthy and well cared for? Then remember that you’re looking at temperament, training and soundness. Watch the owner catch him, groom him, tack him up and ride him. Then ride him yourself if you feel confident. If you’re nervous about riding this horse, walk away. Don’t expect the horse to behave any better when you own him than he does right now. For your first few months together, he’ll probably be worse.

Get a second opinion

If you like what you see, and at first you may fall in love with every horse, arrange a second visit. Take your instructor or another knowledgeable, objective horseperson with you and listen to their advice. If you decide to buy the horse, negotiate a trial period if at all possible. In any case, have a veterinarian check the horse for soundness before you hand over the check.

When you’re ready for horse ownership, finding the right horse will make the difference between a long, happy relationship and frustration and possible injury. Enjoy the search, take your time and get professional advice.

Home or Boarding Stable?

Keeping horses at home has advantages and disadvantages. I have kept my horses in boarding stables and at home and can speak from both sides. When you interact with your horse every day, when you’re the one who brings the food, when you can watch your horse just being a horse, you share a deeper understanding. At the stable, you only see your horse for a couple of hours a day and in a very structured environment. I find my approach to my horse is more businesslike at a stable because we’re there to ride and train. At home, everything is more relaxed. Sometimes so relaxed I never get around to riding!

For me, the best of both worlds is to keep my horse at home during the summer and boarded at a stable with an indoor arena for the winter. If you are thinking of doing that, now is the time to check out stables and book a stall. If you wait until January, you may be out of luck.

When you’re looking after your own horse, you can’t, on a whim, decide to stay downtown after work and go to a movie. If your horse is unwell, you are the one who has to recognize that something is wrong. You have to decide when to call the veterinarian. You have to be there for the farrier. In other words, the full weight of responsibility of looking after a delicate life is on your shoulders.

Some people are very blasé about the whole thing. They’ve been very lucky and never had to deal with a horse emergency. Perhaps they don’t know enough about horses to realize what could happen or don’t care anyway. But most of us are very aware of the responsibility, especially if we’ve dealt with a colicking horse at 11 o’clock at night. I always advise new horse owners to start by boarding their horse at a good stable where they’ll have support.

Veterinarians and farriers are vital allies in looking after our horses and it’s important to build an ongoing relationship. A late night emergency call should not be the first contact with a veterinarian. While it might seem cheaper at the time to do innoculations ourselves, booking an annual veterinary visit has long term benefits. Horses’ hooves need trimming and shoes reset if the horse is shod, every six to eight weeks. Rather than waiting until the hooves look long, or crack, or a shoe falls off, isn’t it better to set up a regular schedule with a farrier and stick to it?

Typically in a boarding stable, routine veterinary and farrier care is provided for many horses at once. For example, a farrier might spend a whole morning at one barn, basically setting up his portable blacksmith’s shop and attending to the hooves of one horse after another. Contrast that with going to an acreage for a single horse. (Keeping horses alone is another issue.) Hopefully the owner has the horse waiting in a barn or corral. Sometimes, an inconsiderate owner waits until the farrier arrives before going out into the pasture to catch the horse, who is perhaps standing knee deep in a slough. In the worst case scenario, the owner has forgotten about the appointment and the farrier has made the trip for nothing.
If you keep your horse in an acreage subdivision as many of us do, why not coordinate routine veterinary and farrier visits with neighbouring horse owners? Your vet or farrier will appreciate being able to make several calls in the same area instead of wasting time travelling. A good relationship with these professionals makes looking after a horse much easier.

Feeding Horses

Their size, horses have delicate digestive systems. They are grazing animals with small stomachs designed to process small amounts of food almost continuously. When we confine horses and feed them relatively large amounts according to our schedules, we have to be very careful with what and how we feed. The amount of food your horse needs varies according to activity, age, breed, weather, quality of feed, quality of shelter, condition of teeth, etc.

What should I feed my horse?

For our purposes, feed for horses can be divided into three categories: pasture, hay and concentrates.


The most natural food for horses is good quality pasture. Most mature pleasure horses doing light work will do well on pasture alone if they have sufficient grazing. However, horses are selective grazers and need a large area to meet their nutritional needs. Just because a field is green does not mean it contains sufficient grazing for a horse, and depending on where you live, for a large part of the year pasture is not available.
You can optimize the amount of grazing available by dividing your pasture into sections and rotating your horses through the different paddocks. That way, you give the grass a chance to grow back and can pick up the manure.


Hay is the basic food of domestic horses. Only feed good quality hay to horses. Inspect hay carefully before buying it, asking the seller to open a bale. Make sure the bales are green and dust and mold free. Stick your hand down into the centre of a bale to make sure it’s not warm. Feeding moldy hay can cause colic and dusty hay can cause respiratory problems. (To avoid dust, it’s a good idea to pull the flakes apart and shake them out well before feeding. As a precaution, you can also soak hay before feeding.)
The type of hay available varies according to the area you live in. Three basic types in Alberta are grass hay, alfalfa hay and grass/alfalfa mix. Common grasses are timothy and brome. Alfalfa has a higher protein content than grass. Many horse people consider a grass/alfalfa mix the best for horses, and timothy/brome/alfalfa is a common combination.
Alfalfa is also available in cubes and pellets. However, horses need chew time to be content, so except for veterinary reasons, most people feed some hay. Some horses have a tendency to choke on cubes. To be safe, you can soften cubes with water before feeding.
Do not feed your horse grass clippings as they can cause founder.


Hay alone cannot provide enough nutrition for hard-working horses, pregnant and nursing mares, or growing youngsters. They need concentrates to supplement the hay. However, hay should still provide the bulk of the diet. Feeding too much grain can cause problems.
Concentrates include grains (whole, rolled or cracked), sweet feed (grain mixed with molasses), and manufactured feeds (pellets, cubes, or extruded). You can buy bags of feed specially formulated for every stage of a horse’s life from creep feed for foals to feed for senior equines.
Beet pulp provides additional bulk. Beet pellets must be soaked before feeding to allow them to expand. If you use hot water, they expand in about an hour, but with cold water, allow overnight soaking. Only prepare enough for one day’s feeding at a time.

Does my horse need anything else?

Horses need lots of drinking water and an adequate amount of salt and minerals.


Fresh water is a vital part of your horse’s diet. Horses drink from 5 to 10 gallons a day.
Clean water should be available at all times except when the horse is very hot from work. As you cool out your horse, allow him to take several small drinks rather than giving him free access to water.
While horses can survive on snow in the winter, it is far from ideal. The horse’s body has to melt a lot of snow to get enough water, thus wasting body heat. A horse not getting enough water is more liable to impaction colic. An inexpensive stock tank heater can keep the water trough ice-free.

Salt and Minerals

A mineralized salt block should be available free-choice. You can also buy a variety of other vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements. Consult your veterinarian.

How much food does my horse need?

The amount of food a horse needs will depend on such things as size, breed, age, and activity. In cold weather, a horse living outside needs more food just to keep warm.
As a general rule, a horse needs 2 to 2.2 pounds of feed for every 100 pounds of body weight. (You can buy a weight tape to measure how much your horse weighs.) For example, an average 1000 lb horse would need 20 to 25 pounds of feed a day. Most of that should be hay. A typical diet for a horse being ridden for one hour five days a week would be 2 to 5 pounds of grain and 15 to 20 pounds of hay a day, split into at least two separate meals.
Common sense and ongoing awareness of your horse’s health and body condition should let you know if you need to make changes. Use a weight tape on a regular basis and keep a record. If your horse is gaining or losing, adjust his feed. Your horse’s weight should remain stable regardless of how much work he is doing or how cold the weather is. As a responsible owner, it’s up to you to adjust the amount you’re feeding accordingly. In winter, look with your hands as well as your eyes. A heavy winter coat can easily hide a thin horse. Feel under that hair. If you are unsure about how much to feed your horse, ask your veterinarian for advice.

How often should I feed my horse?

The basic rule for feeding horses is to feed little and often. The more meals you can split the day’s feed into, the better for the horse. For practical reasons, most people feed two or three times a day. Keep to a regular schedule and allow the horse an hour between work and feeding.

Can a horse eat too much?

Overfeeding can be a problem. While some horses will eat only what they need, most will eagerly overeat if given the chance. This can lead to founder or laminitis. Keep an eye on your horse’s weight and adjust meal size as required. Don’t feed concentrates unless your horse needs them. If your horse is pastured, it may be necessary to confine him in a dirt corral for part of the day. In some ways, a fat horse is as unhealthy as a thin one.

How can I can tell if my horse is the proper weight?

A system called “body condition scoring” has been developed to determine just how fat or thin an animal is.
To a large extent it is based on common sense, looking at the amount of flesh on the ribs, on the base of the tail, between the hips and on the bony prominences. These are the bones that stick out from the spine behind the rib cage.
In a horse carrying ideal weight, the ribs have a slight fat covering but you can feel them. The base of the tail has a smooth shape with slight fat covering. The neck is firm but, except for stallions, has no crest.
You can learn more about body condition scoring by going to the web site of theEquine Research Centre at Guelph, choosing “Horse Health Care” from the first menu, then “Management” from the second.

I have several horses. How do I make sure they’re all getting their share?

If you are feeding more than one horse, you’ll have to make sure each horse gets enough food. Horses have a strong social order and the top horses will take more than their share. To give the bottom horses a chance, spread the hay out with one more pile than the number of horses. It’s best to physically separate horses to feed the grain ration. At the very least, use separate feed bins spaced wide apart. If you don’t, there’s a high risk of injury as each horse fights for his spot at the feeder, and the bottom horse will probably stay away altogether.

Is there anything else I should know about feeding my horse?

Find a diet that works for your horse and stick to it. Make any changes in feed slowly, spread out over several days. If your horse is not doing well even though you are feeding him enough, the problem might be teeth or worms or your horse might be sick. Check with your veterinarian.

Shelter and Fencing for Horses

It is necessary to provide strong, safe fencing and adequate shelter for horses. As a rule, horses don’t need to be kept in a barn. In fact, stabling is as much for our convenience as the horse’s well-being. This fact sheet deals with horses living outside.

Horses do need shelter and what can be considered “adequate” will vary according to the season. In summer, a horse needs protection against sun, rain, wind and hail. In winter, cold, snow and wind are the elements to consider.

  • How can I make sure my horse has adequate shelter?
  • Does my horse need bedding?
  • What about fencing?
  • Is tethering an acceptable method for confining a horse?
  • Can you recommend any books?
  • How can I make sure my horse has adequate shelter?

Healthy horses with a full winter coat can stand a lot of cold as long as they are dry and out of the wind. In the summer, horses are vulnerable to flies. The best long-term solution for all season protection is to build a three-sided horse shelter. Many Departments of Agriculture or farmer’s supply stores carry plans for a standard shelter. The size of the shelter, its location and what it’s made of are all important elements to consider.

Size of Shelter

The size of the shelter depends on the number of horses. For an open-front shelter, allow at least 64 square feet per horse. The ceiling should be at least 9 feet high.
Horses have a very strong social order, and for safety, the shelter should be wide rather than deep. Otherwise boss horses standing in the entranceway can block other horses from going in, or a lower status horse can get trapped in the back.


The shelter must be built on either well-drained land, or the floor built up to make sure it stays dry. The open side should face away from the prevailing wind.

Building Materials

Anything to do with horses must be built strong enough to withstand considerable abuse. A flimsy shelter will not last long and can become unsafe.

Does my horse need bedding?

In the wintertime, clean straw bedding in the shelter will make your horses more comfortable. Bedding is necessary for foals because they spend a lot of time lying down. Similarly, old horses should have bedding. A horse kept in a stall needs bedding year round.

What about fencing?

Fencing for horses must be secure and safe. It must keep the horses where they’re supposed to be without injuring them in the process.


Horses who get out on the road can cause automobile accidents and be badly injured or killed themselves. Even if they don’t head for a road, they can cause damage to neighbours’ property.

Safe Fencing

It has been said that horses are an accident waiting to happen. It’s up to the owner to make the surroundings as safe as possible for horses and people.
If at all possible, do not put horses in wire fences, particularly barbed wire. Never use wire for corrals or for fences separating horses from each other. Horses playing or fighting through the fence can injure themselves badly.
There are many fencing materials available today from traditional 2×6 planks to the newer PVC products. A recent addition to the marketplace is wire made of PVC filaments. Electric fencing also comes in a variety of styles. Once recommended only in conjunction with a regular fence, there are now electric fences on the market intended to be used as the sole fence.
Fencing must always be kept in good repair. If pastures are fenced with wire, the four or five strands of wire must be kept tight and should be marked for visibility. A “hot wire” on top of the fence will keep horses at a safe distance.

Is tethering an acceptable method for confining a horse?

No. Tethering is not appropriate for horses. It is neither safe nor does it allow enough grazing.


The fact that horses are nervous animals whose first reaction to unusual sights and sounds is to run makes tethering very unsafe.
Even without spooking, the horse can easily get the tether caught around a leg and injure himself badly. A basic rule of horsemanship is always to tie a horse above shoulder height so he can’t get a foot over the rope. That rules out tethering.
If the horse does spook, he can snap the line or pull it out of the ground. Not only is he then loose, but he’s running scared with a long rope flapping behind him.


A tethered horse grazes his limited space down to the dirt very quickly. A better alternative for strip grazing is a portable electric fence.

Spring Care for Horses

Spring is the time to gear up for the outdoor riding season. The horses are shedding those big winter coats, everything is covered in hair and a horse groomer’s best friend is a shedding blade.

It’s spring tune up time for horses. (Think of it as getting the oil changed
on your car before the motor seizes up except more important because a car has no interest in its own well-being.)

Get the vet out to give your horse a checkup and vaccinations before the
mosquitoes hit. Except for tetanus, most diseases we commonly inoculate against are carried by biting insects.

Because of the way horses chew, their molars wear unevenly and can develop points that cut the inside of the cheek. An annual checkup catches potential problems before they affect your horse’s comfort and health, and possibly your safety. If necessary, your veterinarian will float the teeth to smooth sharp edges. Why wait until your horse is dropping his feed or tossing his head while ridden?

Depending on your horse’s feet and the kind of riding you plan to do, you might want to talk to your farrier about shoes. “Au naturel” is best for a lightly ridden horse with good feet, but when hooves wear excessively or split, or your horse moves gingerly on anything but soft ground, shoes are a necessary evil. In any case, proper farrier work is essential to your horse’s comfort and soundness. Avoid problems with a regular six to eight-week trimming schedule whether the hooves look as if they need it or not. (Do you let your fingernails get long and ragged before you file them? Probably not and your fingernails don’t support one thousand plus pounds of horse.)

With nice weather, we want to spring into riding and summer pleasures, but if we overdo it in the first flush of spring, we may not have such a good

Unless you’ve been riding all winter, you and your horse will both need to get back in condition. And if you have used an indoor arena all winter, be prepared for some high spirits the first ride or two outside. Start slowly with lots of walking. Build up muscle and wind gradually over a couple of months before you head out to the mountains. Consider also that your horse’s skin will need to become re-accustomed to saddle and girth. Watch for signs that the girth is rubbing before a sore develops.

Spring is also the season to guard against laminitis. Introduce your horse gradually to pasture. During the transition to rich spring grass, continue feeding hay and limit the amount of grazing. It’s a great temptation to simply turn the horses out on grass as soon as possible, but if your horse does founder, he’ll be compromised for the rest of his life.

Winter Care

Horses are well adapted to cold weather. As long as they have shelter from wind and wet, horses can stay comfortable when the temperatures plunge. A south-facing three-sided shelter with straw bedding will see a well-fed horse through the roughest winter weather. However, make sure the shelter is wide rather than deep or you’ll find horses low on the pecking order afraid to go in.


Stabled horses need blanketing when they’re turned out during the day, but the best blanket for an outside horse is his own full winter coat. If you do blanket your horse, make sure you take it off and brush him often. Also, realize that a blanket that is not warm enough is worse than no blanket at all. In cold weather, the hair coat stands up to trap additional warm air close to the body. A blanket keeps the coat flat.


When temperatures dip, the best heat source for your horse is extra hay. The first step to winterizing, which you’ve already taken care of, is to get in enough good hay to last through until next year’s hay crop. To calculate how much you need, figure on half a square bale per horse per day then add some to cover for the occasional moldy bale or extra cold weather. It’s a good feeling to look at that stack of green, sweet smelling hay safely under a tarp and know that the horses won’t go hungry.

For most of us, winter means feeding in the dark before going to work and after dark again when we get home in the evening. To guard against accidentally feeding a moldy flake which you didn’t see in the dark, put aside any hay that doesn’t smell nice until you can inspect it in daylight. It’s also a good idea to shake out the flakes in case there’s any dust in them.

To make sure all your horses get their fair share of hay, spread out one more pile than the number of horses. That way, when the boss horse keeps thinking another pile looks better than the one she’s presently eating from, the other horses can move to new piles too.

A horse shouldn’t lose weight in the winter. In fact, a little extra layer of fat to fend off the cold won’t hurt. A thick winter coat can easily hide weight loss so it’s important to use hands as well as eyes to monitor winter weight. By the time you see that the horse is getting thinner, it’s too late.


Watering horses in winter is a little more difficult than in summer. In winter, I move my water trough up to the front of the field so the hose, which I keep inside, will reach from the house. When it’s time to refill the trough, I use a hairdryer to melt the outside tap, bring out the hose and fill the trough. A stock tank heater keeps the water above freezing.
Some people believe horses can get by on snow. “Get by” they might, but so could we. Horses require a lot of water to digest dry feed. How much snow would they have to eat to provide the 5 to 10 gallons of water they need? If you’re not convinced, ask your vet about the greater risk for impaction colic.

Winter Riding

Riding outside in winter presents some additional challenges. Dressing warmly can take care of the weather, but there’s not much you can do about the footing. Stay off icy patches, and remember that frozen ground, even if it’s not icy, can be as hard as concrete. Don’t go any faster than a walk unless there’s a good cushion of snow on top and you know for sure there’s no ice underneath.

Just as we need proper footwear to walk safely on winter ground, so our horses need special provisions. If your horse is shod, talk to your farrier about pads and caulks. If he’s barefoot, spraying the sole with a nonstick cooking product, or even coating it with old fashioned vaseline, can help prevent the snow from balling up. In any case, don’t expect your horse to walk on high heels. Carry a hoofpick with you and be prepared to stop periodically and pick out the icy build up.

Be careful bringing your horse into the barn after being outside. Snow ball feet are very slippery. Preferably, dig out the snow at the barn door. If you can get the hoofpick under the snow pack at the back of the foot, you can often pry it all out at once, especially if you coated the sole as suggested above. Be careful you don’t dig into the frog, though. If you can’t budge it, chip off the snow until it’s even with the hoof wall and then wait for the hooves to warm up before removing the rest.

Doing What’s Best for Our Horses

Last summer, one of my students had to cancel her lesson because her horse had a bad allergic reaction to fly spray. The liquid had got on his skin instead of his hair, causing swelling and soreness. She commented that here she had been trying to help him and had hurt him instead.

The incident got me thinking. I thought of the times we don’t pay attention to the directions on the bottle. Fly spray bottles say not to wet the skin and not to spray in the saddle area, yet how many of us are careful to follow those directions? Deworming paste gives specific doses according to body weight, yet how many of us use a weight tape on our horses and then adjust the dose accordingly? And what about the supplements and medications we use on our horses without paying close attention to the recommended dosages or how one interacts with another?
My student’s comment that she had been trying to help her horse started me thinking of all the things we do to be kind to our horses that are not really in their best interest. Applying fly spray, of course, is not one of those things. In fact, it falls in the opposite category of the sometimes unpleasant things we do to our horses for their own good.
Overfeeding and under-training are probably the two most common indulgences that hurt the horse in the long run.
Many people seem to equate feeding with showing affection. So we feed our horses what they like rather than what they need. Sometimes a treat becomes a gallon of oats. I have often seen people give their horses a big feed of grain when they return from a ride, disregarding the rule of not feeding grain to a hot horse and risking colic.
Obese horses are another case in point. It seems mean to confine a horse in a dry corral for part of the day. After all, they would rather be eating grass 24 hours a day. However, laminitis, a common consequence of unregulated turnout on good pasture, is a high price to pay.

Horses are not capable of foreseeing the consequences of their actions so it is our responsibility to see the consequences for them. If your horse is an “easy keeper” who runs to fat easily, maybe it’s time to start controlling how much he eats.
Then there’s the problem of the foal who is allowed to do whatever he wants because he’s only a baby. When he grows into an undisciplined two-year-old, he becomes a safety risk for people and perhaps suffers abuse when someone tries to correct his behaviour the wrong way.

The same goes for the riding horse who doesn’t receive proper training or who is allowed to do what she wants when out on a ride. Just as children need education, a horse’s best insurance for a long, happy life is good training. A poorly trained horse is less likely to find a good home than her well-mannered counterpart.