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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Providing a Home for a Horse

By John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD ; Susan Aiello, DVM, ELS

Horses are large animals that require large amounts of space. Some horse owners choose to board their horses because they do not have the proper facilities to keep and exercise them at home.

A clean, well-ventilated stable helps reduce disease.

Housing

The basics of winter management include shelter, adequate nutrition and water, and routine health care. Horses generally do well in cold weather, as long as they are kept dry and clean. Wet animals get chilled easily, and damp conditions promote hoof and respiratory problems. If kept indoors, horses should be stabled in quarters that provide optimal ventilation and light, temperature regulation, and minimal exposure to dust and molds. In addition, the barn or stable should be easy to clean and disinfect and should provide an ample amount of space for each horse. Stalls should have nonslip flooring and walls or partitions that prevent direct contact between horses in adjacent stalls. Keeping your horse’s quarters clean and well ventilated helps cut down on ammonia, dust, and stale air that can irritate the respiratory tract during prolonged periods indoors.

Make sure that you have identified a reliable source of quality hay to maintain wintertime nutrition. Horses have greater energy needs in winter because they must burn more calories to stay warm. Therefore, during winter, additional forage, fat, or grain should be added to the normal ration. Horses must always have access to fresh water in the winter, because even mild dehydration can increase the risk of colic. Water may need to be heated to keep it from freezing in winter weather.

Daily grooming and hoof care are also important during winter. Watch for signs of respiratory disease during your daily inspection, because this is more common during long periods of indoor confinement. Wintertime veterinary check ups can help identify respiratory or hoof problems early before they develop into serious conditions.

Whenever possible, horses should have access to good quality pasture. This provides optimal ventilation, a source of good forage, and the opportunity for your horse to graze and exercise. Safe, durable fencing should be used for pastures and paddocks to reduce the risk of self-trauma. Overcrowding should be avoided as it can lead to overgrazing, which in turn can lead to dusty or muddy pasture that may contribute to disease.

In summer, the biggest danger is heat stress. Horses should have shady places to rest during the heat of the day and plenty of fresh water at all times. Horses that are sweating profusely may also need increased supplementation with salt and minerals. In the stable, ceiling or wall-mounted fans can be used to increase air circulation on hot, humid days. Stall doors that are open at the top or made of heavy mesh screening provide better ventilation.

Exercise must be limited during periods of high temperature and/or humidity. A simple guide to dangerous conditions is the comfort index, which is the sum of temperature in degrees Fahrenheit and percent relative humidity see Table: Using the Comfort Index to Avoid Summertime Heat Stress. For example, a temperature of 80°F (26°C) and a relative humidity of 70% results in a comfort index of 150.

Using the Comfort Index to Avoid Summertime Heat Stress

Comfort Index

Situation

Protective Action Needed

Less than 130

Heat stress is not an issue.

None.

130 to 150

Horses will sweat but can stay safe if water intake is adequate.

None, as long as water intake is adequate.

More than 150 (and relative humidity above 75%)

Heat dissipation through sweating may be a problem.

Limit exercise and check horses frequently for signs of stress.

More than 180

Heat dissipation through sweating fails.

Stop all workouts.

Diet

Proper nutrition is an important part of equine management. Most of the energy in your horse’s diet should come from forage (pasture or good quality hay). In fact, horses doing only light work or exercise often do fine on a diet of total forage supplemented with vitamins and minerals. As energy requirements increase, such as during training or cold weather, grain can be added to provide additional calories. However, grain should be limited, because it contains starch that can upset digestion in the hindgut (cecum and great colon), leading to colic.

All grains are not created equal. Oats are among the best grains to feed, because they contain highly digestible starches that spare the hindgut. Sweet feeds can cause horses to eat too quickly and upset the digestion in the hind gut, both of which can lead to colic. Horses can also get energy from fats, which are often preferable to grains.

Pelleted rations can be an excellent source of energy, protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. High-quality rations from a name-brand manufacturer have appropriate ingredients and quality control. Your veterinarian can advise you on setting up a proper feeding program for your horse.

Fresh, clean water should always be available to all horses, year round. Never restrict access to water unless instructed by your veterinarian.

Exercise

Horses are natural athletes and need a level of exercise that is appropriate for their age and health. However, exercise must be limited during hot, humid weather see Housing or after periods of inactivity. Problems often develop when a horse is exercised too strenuously, especially after a long period of rest. In this situation, muscles that are out of condition become damaged, leading to lameness and the buildup of protein breakdown products in the blood. This is commonly known as “Monday morning” sickness, in which horses that have had not been exercised all week are ridden hard by their owners on the weekend.

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