HORSEPLAY: Keeping your horse warm in the winter

A few days of wind and pouring rain resulted in Karen Griffiths’ horse Lacey having a bad case of what is termed “witches knots” in her mane. While these knots may look like a bad attempt at braiding the hair, they are often formed by the horse rubbing against something or horses grooming each other. The mane is often the sight of mutual grooming. It takes a lot of detangler and patience with a mane comb to straighten out the hair. (Karen Griffith/for Peninsula Daily News)

A few days of wind and pouring rain resulted in Karen Griffiths’ horse Lacey having a bad case of what is termed “witches knots” in her mane. While these knots may look like a bad attempt at braiding the hair, they are often formed by the horse rubbing against something or horses grooming each other. The mane is often the sight of mutual grooming. It takes a lot of detangler and patience with a mane comb to straighten out the hair. (Karen Griffith/for Peninsula Daily News)

DON’T YOU HATE it when you provide a shelter to stand under and your horse chooses to stand outside in the pouring rain? Or how they love to roll in the mud rather than on the grass, or, in Lacey’s case, a large area of sand that sits above ground level?

Knots in the mane seem to occur frequently for Lacey. I assume they are caused by her rubbing her neck against a tree or on push broom brushes I’ve attached to a post in her shelter. Usually I’ll discover a little burr or piece of twig in the center of the knot, so I assume that’s why she started rubbing.

I’ve actually never seen her rub her neck over and over against something. Neither, it seems, do most horse owners and that apparently is where the myth, or folklore, of those knots in the mane being caused by witches coming in the night to tie them, thus the term “witches knots.”

In my book, the term is all silliness, and it’s simply caused by the horse itself. Normally I untangle the mane right away when I see it start to happen, but Lacey’s recent case of bad knots was caused by my own neglect; I waited until the week of constant pouring rain stopped before brushing them out. And by then the hair was tightly knotted and difficult to unravel. I vowed to Lacey I would do better by her from now on.

While Lacey and her pasture mate Sunny frequently do stand under their shelter when it’s raining, it’s not unusual to see them outside standing in it, either. Personally, I like giving them the choice.

Load check

Remember how many barns and horse shelters collapsed during last year’s heavy snowfall dubbed “Snowmaggedon”? Sadly, some animals were harmed when roofs collapsed, too.

Recently I received a message from a reader asking me to remind owners to check how stable their shelters and barns are, especially for the ability to handle loads of snow. If you do get a lot of snow ,do what you can to remove it from the roofs. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A little precaution before a crisis occurs is preferable to a lot of fixing up afterward.

Blankets

Winter also is the time of year some horse owners start putting winter blankets on their horses. It’s during the cold winter rains and snow that non horse owners seem to get super concerned when they see horses without blankets, fearing they are freezing and miserable.

Let me first address why some owners choose not to blanket their horses. The most important reason is you actually want the horse to grow more hair in the winter because more hair helps it to keep warm.

The horse’s winter coat by design has the ability to fluff up, the hair literally standing on end, creating a warm layer of air around the horse. The long outer hair creates an additional layer of insulation to help fend off rain or snow. If a healthy, well-fed horse starts getting cold, they will start running around to get warm.

The primary way a horse stays warm is by eating hay. Digesting hay is a fermentation process, and one of the byproducts is heat. When your horse is facing cold weather, the two most important things to provide him are plenty of good quality grass hay (that is not full of weeds) and clean water that isn’t ice cold or frozen over.

As I’ve said before, winter grasses are dormant and lack the nutrients needed to keep a horse healthy. They could actually starve in a field full of winter grass, thus the need for good hay.

When does a horse need a coat? Is the horse able to get out of the wind, rain or snow? That’s ultra-important. Some breeds have naturally thin coats of hair. Others might have health issues or aren’t getting the right type of food or not enough food. Consider the horse itself. You could have a barn full of horses kept inside 24/7. Most of us know how damp and cold the air inside a barn can be. One horse will keep warm with no blanket, the horse next to him may need a light blanket and the one next to him may need a full winter parka.

Remember, if you do choose to blanket, you must remove it and check the hair under the blanket on a regular basis. It could rub and cause sores. Feel under the blanket daily to check if the horse is sweating or chilled. Most importantly, know that when you blanket a horse it squashes that natural insulating layer of air in his coat.

In addition, if a horse is wet and sweaty after riding, never put a blanket on him and put him away. Under the blanket the coat will stay matted and wet, thus creating a cold, wet and chilly environment. In this case, always cool the horse down by taking off the saddle, throwing a “cooling” blanket over him and walking him around until his body temperature is normal. You can tell by placing your hand between the front legs. Then take some rags, a rubber curry comb and a brush to dry and fluff up his coat, and then put the blanket on, him.

Of course, in our region if you do keep a blanket on it should always be waterproof on horses kept outside. And please do not start blanketing the horse at the start of winter, keep it on 24/7 and then decide to stop before the cold weather season is over, either because the blanket is torn or whatever. At that point your horse will no longer have its full winter coat and truly suffer.

Looking for someone to ride with? Check out the Facebook group Olympic Peninsula Riders.

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Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears the second and fourth Sunday of each month.

If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, please email Griffiths at [email protected] at least two weeks in advance. You can also call her at 360-460-6299.

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