What illnesses affect horses during winter?

As the nights draw in and the thermometer goes into negative figures, some equine winter illnesses and conditions become more prevalent. Horse owners should be aware of these illnesses and adapt their management techniques to reduce their occurrence.

Key Facts:

  • Move your horses off paddocks that are bordered by sycamore trees or fence an area off around any sycamore trees in the paddock to reduce the risk of sycamore poisoning.
  • Horses are more likely to drink warmer water (between 15-20°C) but they won’t suffer any ill effects from drinking cold water.
  • Avoid over washing or vigorous grooming of your horse’s legs during winter months to help avoid mud fever.
  • Restrict your horse’s access to frosty grass especially if they are prone to laminitis.

Mitigating the risk of sycamore poisoning

Atypical myopathy can be a fatal disease in horses that breaks down the muscles of the heart, respiratory system and skeletal muscles. It is caused by ingestion of hypoclycin A which is present in sycamore seeds. It typically occurs in autumn and winter when horses stumble across sycamore seeds.

If you have sycamores bordering or in your fields, consider moving your horses off these paddocks. Or if you are unable to, fence off as large an area around the tree as is practical.

The risk or severity is related to the number of seeds ingested. Whilst the seeds do carry with the wind, the concentration will almost certainly be highest near the tree.

Encouraging horses to drink water in cold weather

While horses may not visibly sweat as much in cold weather, they still lose water and electrolytes which need to be replaced. There is a belief that hot horses should not be allowed to drink cold water. Most horses do not suffer any ill effects from doing so – out hunting they often drink happily from cold streams.

However, one study conducted in America showed that horses react differently to water temperature between summer and winter. While in the summer ponies drank equal volumes of warm and cold water, in winter they appeared to drink more when the water was warm compared with when it was cold.

What does this mean in practical terms? It suggests that at competitions during the winter, while there is no harm in offering cold water straight out of the tap, horses may be more likely to drink if the water is slightly warmer – between 15-20°C is ideal. If you have a horse or pony that is prone to impaction colic, maintaining optimum hydration during the winter months is even more important and a heated water trough or bucket might be worth considering.

How to spot mud fever and try to avoid it

Mud fever (also known as greasy heels or cracked heels) is properly called pastern dermatitis. These names are used to describe a range of skin infections in horses. Prolonged exposure to damp conditions is one of the aggravating factors. This could occur by standing in, or riding through, mud; repeated failure to dry limbs after washing them; and excessive sweating under a rug. So horses can be particularly vulnerable in the winter.

Possible signs of mud fever on the limbs include matted hair; deep cracks in the skin; hair loss; swelling, heat and pain; a thick discharge from scabs that is yellow, green, creamy or white; and in severe cases depression, lethargy and loss of appetite.

There are many things you can consider to help avoid mud fever – a number of which relate to keeping your horses limbs dry and reducing exposure to mud.

So, for instance you can apply topical barrier creams to already dry legs before work or turning out, or alternatively waterproof leg wraps. Counterintuitively, avoid over washing or vigorous grooming.

There are actions you can take in the horse’s environment too: ensure bedding is clean and dry, disinfect equipment and stables from time to time in case dermatophilus spores are lurking, and keep horses away from excessively muddy paddocks or gateways.

It is a good idea to keep a look out for the signs of mud fever. If you suspect your horse has a problem, talk to your vet.

Frosty or snowy ground and laminitis

When the weather turns colder and there is a hard frost it is important to consider the pasture your horse is turned out on. A hard frost will raise the sugar content of grass which will be a particular problem if your horse has laminitis. Restrict your horse’s access to frosty grass for a few days and provide extra hay in these circumstances.

Contact the Pure Feed Nutritional Team

For advice on feeding your horse during the winter months, contact our friendly nutritional team. You can email [email protected] or call 01458 333 333. Please contact your vet if you suspect your horse has any of the winter illnesses and conditions mentioned in this blog.

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