It was much warmer this morning when I contemplated going out to feed horses; if you can call -25 (and that’s before windchill) warm.
We are approaching the end of the coldest February in 85 years in Alberta and it doesn’t look like it’s going to let up yet. While you can dress and prepare for chores in these freezing temperatures this is just the beginning of what you need to consider when you have an equine therapy practice in this area of the world.
So, what do you do?
Close up shop and wait till spring?
That may certainly be a good option if you lease your horses and facility and have another income source. But if that is not your situation, don’t panic! There are ways to keep everyone thriving through the deep chill and we have been doing just that for going on twenty years; my aim here is to identify some of the factors you need to consider and to share how we make things work at Healing Hooves.
Basic Horse Care in Cold Temperatures
There are many wonderful resources in this area which I would encourage you to research and access but some things to think about include:
- Have a good clean water supply which is not going to freeze and check it regularly. Horses do NOT do well eating snow.
- Feed extra hay. How much and what type is going to depend on your horses’ specific needs, but they all need extra food to stay warm. We use slow feeder nets at Healing Hooves so our horses have access to hay all the time without over eating. But when the temperature plummets we also feed extra loose hay daily. Our older horses are on richer free choice hay all winter.
- Have adequate shelter from the snow and wind. Our horses all live outside year-round, including several older and special needs horses; but they all have access to shelters and wind breaks.
- Consider your pecking order. You may provide extra food and lots of shelter, but can the older horse at the bottom of the pecking horse get his fair share? You may need to divide your herd up to care for these horses.
- Your horses’ feet may not grow as quickly in the winter, but they still need to be taken care of. Frozen ground and snowballs accumulating in feet can cause extra discomfort, especially for horses with special needs.
- Some horses, especially those who are worked regularly, older horses or those with medical conditions, may need to be blanketed. We find that our older horses maintain their weight much better if they are blanketed as they don’t use up so much energy simply staying warm. We then need to check blankets regularly for any rubbing or other discomfort and take them off on warmer days.
- Consider special needs. For example, we have a horse who has foundered who struggles in the winter with circulation to her feet; she wears wraps on her legs to help. We also have two with thyroid problems who seem to struggle especially this time of year, so we monitor and manage their medication and food needs.
An Aging Herd with Special Needs
One reality of longevity in this field is that your herd will age, develop special needs and require extra care. If you accept donated horses your herd may get to this stage more quickly. At Healing Hooves we now have over half of our herd in their late teens and twenties, and one turning thirty. We have horses with cushings, laminitis, arthritis, ringbone and one with a distinct lack of teeth. Some are still working gently, others are retired; they will all stay here for the rest of their days.
These are the horses who will likely need extra and specialised feed, they may also need to be blanketed, receive medications, and support from farriers and veterinarians.
Our philosophy is that these horses are our partners who have worked with us for many years; they deserve to be well taken care of in their retirement and it is our responsibility to provide this care.
This leads into the next consideration:
When Is It Time to Let Them Go?
This is a big and potential controversial topic which we only have space to touch gently here. My philosophy is to always try to do what is in the best interests of the animal, and sometimes that means looking at their quality of life, taking advice from veterinarians and perhaps making the decision which frees them from pain. In my experience there comes a time when you just ‘know’; there are also times when it feels like the animal is asking you to let them go.
That being said there is often much you can do to keep older horses, and those with special needs, comfortable and healthy; to maintain and extend that quality of life. Plus one of the wonderful things about equine therapy is that horses can often keep active in this work much longer, and for many horses this creates a sense of purpose and connection which can help keep them healthy, both physically and emotionally.
An extra consideration when your animals are part of a therapy practice is that you are not the only one who will experience the loss when an animal dies.
This is also a loss for your clients.
Again, this is a huge topic which we will cover in a later blog post. But some key things to think about are how and when to let clients know, allowing clients to say goodbye, and making space for and supporting client’s grieving while in the middle of your own.
We have lost several animals over the past two decades at Healing Hooves, some expected and some not. In each case it has been painful and challenging. Yet by finding a balance between making space for all of the uncomfortable feelings that invariably come with loss, and ‘holding on’ to our connection to those animals in other, often deeper and more powerful, ways, these experiences have often become opportunities for healing and growth.
Chances are you have animals other than horses, and they too will feel the cold. While the details will be species and individual animal specific the basics are the same as above: food, water and shelter. At Healing Hooves our ‘barn’ cats often end up in the heated office, especially as they age. We also need to remember their need for attention and company.
A Warm Place to Work
Moving onto the more practical client considerations, where are you going to work?
In some ways we are not too different from the horses here; we need shelter. Yet the reality is we usually have a lower tolerance for the cold than our horses, so we also need warmth. Exactly what that looks like will depend on your clients, budget and practice, and it does not have to be a fancy heated barn and arena!
At Healing Hooves we have an (unheated) arena and barn, and a heated office. This allows us to spend time with the horses with a place to retreat, usually with a few barn cats, to warm up. Your practice and facility may look different, but provided you have a sheltered place to safely interact with the horses, and a place of warmth to retreat to as needed, it is usually possible to work year-round.
What about when clients cancel?
Unfortunately providing shelter and warmth to work in are not the only considerations for your clients. They need to get to your place safely, which means considerations for road conditions and whether your clients, who may not have a four wheel drive truck, can get in and out of your yard! The latter you can usually manage with some sort of snow removal arrangement (we have a wonderful neighbour who helps us out there!) the former you will have less control over, but at least can usually predict from weather forecasts and road reports.
Regardless of all the above, clients will cancel, and will likely cancel more regularly and more last minute during the winter. How you manage that is up to you, but I recommend having a clear policy that you communicate clearly to clients, ideally before the first winter storm!
I hope you have found this article helpful! If so I encourage you to share it with others who may also like it and to check out the other articles on this site.
And if you have any questions or comments please add them below!