As we wind down to the end of the year and look forward to some rest and relaxation, it is worth remembering that our horses do not change their daily requirements, even though we might. While some of our horses may have a bit of a break from their usual work over this period, it is often with a slight change of routine and work-load that problems can be encountered.
If you are going away it is imperative that you know that your horse is still well taken care of and you have plans in place for all eventualities and are well organised. If you are at home for the holidays, this is also the time that many of our grooms are on leave and suppliers run low on stocks, so being well prepared ahead of time, limits drama and stress for everyone.
Although many are time-honoured and obvious, it is worth remembering these points for a happy holiday season:
Horses love routine, and the ultimate routine centres around meal times. It’s the highlight of every horse’s day and the last thing they want is someone messing with their favourite part of the day. Missing or delayed meals can add stress and changes in feed and routine can trigger a colic.
Planning accordingly, ensures as little disruption to the normal daily routine as possible, so if your horse’s diet must change during this time, introduce them gradually to the new feed regime in the weeks before. Timing is important too and if you usually feed your horse three times a day and will be unable to over this time, gradually get them used to being fed only twice a day.
Keep feed buckets and scoops clean. This is obvious really, as smelly, mouldy buckets can put horses off eating! More seriously though, there is a risk of cross contamination where a number of horses are involved and one or more is receiving medication.
Horses are trickle feeders, so little and often is the best way to feed with a supply of good quality ad-lib hay if you are not lucky enough to have good and sufficient grazing.
As the horse has evolved to live on fibre from vegetation, his gut needs a constant supply of forage in order to function correctly. Feed a minimum of 1.5% of the horse’s body weight daily as forage. This equates to 6.75 – 8kg’s of forage (grass and hay) per day.
Feeding plenty of forage to a stabled horse helps satisfy his need to chew and also to relieve boredom, reducing the risk of behavioural abnormalities and reducing digestive upsets and increased acidosis.
Hay quality is as important as forage quantity. Hay should have a crude protein content of 7% or higher. Hay with less protein tends to be over-mature and have too much indigestible fibre. As plants mature their digestibility and nutrient content decline.
Make sure you have enough feed, hay and shavings in stock to see you through the period you are away or while the suppliers are closed for the holidays.
If you do have grazing paddocks, it is well worth checking them regularly for weeds and ensuring that there is sufficient grass for your horse to eat while out. Summer rains do help to get the grass growing but viewed from afar, some paddocks may seem to have a lot of grazing where in fact it is mostly weed and not particularly edible or nutritious.
Make sure that your horses have unlimited access to fresh clean water. A 500kg horse at maintenance will consume approximately 30-45 litres daily, and sometimes more in the heat.
65-75% of a horse’s body weight is water and it is needed to maintain body temperature, to lubricate joints and to transport nutrients around the body. It is also a constituent of saliva and other digestive juices. Horses are notoriously fussy and sometimes choose not to drink rather than to drink dirty water. With constant access they will rarely over drink and in our summer heat it is necessary to make sure that they are drinking enough.
Regular monitoring of your horses temperature will alert you to any potential illness and, especially at this time of year as the horse sickness season starts, it should be taken twice a day. Knowing what your horse’s normal temperature is, is useful for comparison but anything over 38.5 should be treated with suspicion and monitored further.
Other things to look out for include a horse off its food or not eating as it usually does, any change in demeanour or normal attitude. As an owner, yard manager or regular groom it is far easier to pick up these changes so if someone else is standing in to look after your horse, taking temperatures also makes it easier for them to pick up a problem early on.
It is important to make sure your basic first aid kit is stocked up so that in the event of an injury or laceration you are able to administer first aid before your vet gets to you. Basic necessities include anti-bacterial wash, wound spray, gauze pads, Elastoplast, vet-wrap, crepe bandage and cotton wool.
Ensure that your horses’ feet are being cleaned regularly, as particularly in the wetter weather they can get packed with mud and develop mud fever and thrush. Also make sure that your regular fly, midge and tick control measures are adhered to during this time.
In the event of a serious or life-threatening injury or colic, if you are out of reach, the person entrusted with the care of your horse should have all emergency contact details and be able to make decisions on your behalf as to the process to follow in getting the horse the appropriate veterinary care that you would normally agree to. Do you have colic surgery cover and is that an option for your horse? You may be comfortable about surgery, but only for your younger horses. You may not, for example, feel it’s the best course of action for the older members of your herd. This is information that the horse’s “guardian” and vets need to know if you will not be easily reached by phone.
If you are not available and you leave your horse in someone else’s care, you should also leave a list of contact details. Aside from yourself, it should detail how to contact your vet, farrier, neighbours – in fact, anyone you consider might have a part to play if things start going wrong.
(On this note and something to consider for the New Year, if you do not have a plan already in place, is having a “trust” plan for your horses should something happen to you. There have been a number of stories of owners dying and the horses being sent to auction or sold to the first buyer or, even worse, just left on the farm while the estate was wound up. We should all have a contingency plan written up detailing what should happen to our horses and making any provisions for their care.)
Very few horse owners like leaving their animals. It’s natural to worry, but your horses will cope just fine. Provided their feed keeps coming and rations are as they should be, they’ll still be happy to see you and you can enjoy some time off.