WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #100
CUT YOUR WINTER VET BILLS
by Barb Crabbe, DVM
Seven survival strategies to keep your horse healthy - and the
vet away - throughout the winter months.
In this article, I'm going to review seven common health problems
we equine vets see often in the winter months. I'll describel
what they are, tell why we see them at this time of the year, and
- most important - provide survival strategies to help you avoid
PROBLEM #1: IMPACTION COLIC
Your horse develops a blockage in his intestinal tract. The
impaction leads to signs of abdominal discomfort and can
precipitate more serious types of colic. It can even require
Why in winter? Many different factors can make your horse more
likely to colic during winter months, including diet changes,
reduced exercise, and declining turn-out time. Most important,
when temperatures really drop, your horse is likely to drink less
water, thereby increasing his risk for an impaction or blocked
You can't change the weather, but you can encourage your horse to
drink more by providing warmed water when temperatures plummet.
Studies have shown that horses increase their water intake by as
much as 40 percent when tepid water is provided in place of cold.
As a rule of thumb, when outdoor temperatures approach the
freezing mark, give your horse a bucket of warm water once each
Of course, you can also minimize his colic risk by making sure he
gets out of his stall daily for an exercise session - especially
if turn-out will be limited because of frozen ground, heavy rain
or snow, or limited daylight hours.
PROBLEM #2: SOLE ABSCESS
A pocket of pus forms above the sole of your horse's foot, often
after the foot is bruised. Pressure builds up within the hoof
capsule, causing your horse to become extremely sore, and even up
to "three-legged" lame.
Why in winter? Hard, frozen ground can cause a sole bruise, which
can then become an abscess. In warmer climates, wet, muddy
conditions make feet soft and susceptible to bacteria that cause
abscesses to form. Also, if you delay farrier appointments
because your horse isn't working much, his feet can become
unbalanced or ragged, and so less able to resist abscess
Regular foot care is the most important way to protect your horse
from developing a sole abscess. Schedule your farrier for a trim
every four to eight weeks, and be sure to clean your horse's feet
daily, even when you aren't riding regularly. For some
susceptible horses, shoes with or without pads can help protect
feet from bruising, minimizing abscesses.
PROBLEM #3: MUD FEVER (SCRATCHES)
A mixed group of organisms (bacteria and fungi) infect the skin
of your horse's lower legs, causing redness, swelling, and scabs.
This condition is quite painful for your horse and can even cause
him to become lame. In severe cases, infection can spread,
leading to systemic illness.
Why in winter? The organisms that cause mud fever usually thrive
in wet, muddy conditions. If you live in a climate where winters
are wet and your horse is pastured or turned out in the mud,
he'll be at the greatest risk. The organisms can become
concentrated in the soil on some farms, making horses who live in
certain locations more likely to develop mud fever.
Of course it's best to avoid allowing your horse to stand around
in the mud, but sometimes it's simply unavoidable. To lower the
risk of mud fever, groom your horse carefully every day, taking
special care to remove caked-on mud from his legs and then drying
For some horses, leaving hair intact at the back of fetlocks and
pasterns can help protect those areas and prevent mud fever from
developing. Once the problem starts, however, shaving the hair
away is critical to preventing its spread.
Inspect pasterns daily after grooming, and if you see any small
scabs or areas of red, inflamed skin, it's best to begin
treatment immediately. Your vet is likely to recommend thoroughly
cleansing the area with an antimicrobial scrub such as nolvasan,
followed by treatment with an antibiotic/steroid combination
ointment that will help kill organisms and reduce inflammation.
Above all, don't ignore early signs of this disease; if it
becomes severe, it might require aggressive (and expensive)
treatment to resolve.
PROBLEM #4: RAIN ROT
A bacterial organism (Dermatophilus congoliensus) takes up
residence in your horse's skin, resulting in painful scabs,
crusts, and hair loss, most commonly along the top of his back.
Why in winter? The bacteria that causes rain rot loves moisture.
If your horse lives in the rain where his back accumulates
moisture, he's at risk for developing this disease.
Make sure your horse has shelter where he can periodically get
dry. If shelter's not available or your horse is one of those who
just prefers to stand out in the rain, consider a well fitted
turn-out blanket to prevent moisture from accumulating on his
back. Regular grooming will also help to keep his skin healthy
and allow you to recognize early signs of this disease so you can
control it before symptoms become severe. The bacteria is usu-
ally sensitive to antimicrobials such as chlorhexadine or
betadine. If you treat small, emerging areas by removing crusts
with a rubber curry comb and shampooing with an antimicrobial
scrub, you can keep rain rot at bay.
Be aware that this infection can spread from horse to horse, so
take care to keep grooming tools separated. It's also a good idea
to dispose of hair that comes out during grooming, as large
numbers of the bacteria can be found in the attached scabs-and
can easily spread to other horses.
PROBLEM #5: BLANKET RUBS OR INJURY
Your horse develops a sore on his withers or rubs on his
shoulders because of an ill-fitting blanket. Horses turned out in
blankets can also be injured by wayward straps, or by falls or
entanglements caused by blankets' slipping and twisting.
Why in winter? With winter often comes blanketing-either to
protect your horse from rainy outdoor conditions or to keep him
warm in the barn.
Make sure blankets fit properly, and check them regularly. Any
horse wearing a blanket should have it removed daily-ideally for
a grooming session.
Never leave a blanket on for days or weeks at a time without
regular checking; not only can skin abrasions become severe, but
also weight loss can go undetected, resulting in an unpleasant
surprise when the blanket is finally removed.
I prefer to avoid blankets on horses turned out full time,
particularly if they live with other horses. I've seen too many
severe, even life-threatening injuries due to ripped or otherwise
If your horse develops shoulder rubs even when his blanket seems
to fit him well, an under-blanket shoulder protector can help
protect his skin.
PROBLEM #6: TURN-OUT INJURY
Your horse is turned out in his pasture or paddock when he slips,
slides, or falls, resulting in a wide variety of possible
injuries, from a small cut to a lifethreatening broken bone.
Why in winter? Turn-out injuries can be more common during winter
for two reasons. First, your horse is likely to be cooped up more
and turned out only intermittently because of adverse weather
conditions. As a result, when he does go out, his pent-up energy
is likely to make him "get a little crazy," increasing his risk
Second, pasture/paddock conditions can be less than ideal-because
they're either frozen or muddy. The end result is a rowdy horse
barreling around a slippery pasture-a near-certain recipe for
Avoid turning your horse out when ground is frozen, and take
steps to control slippery mud in pastures. If necessary, sand or
gravel can be placed over mud patches in pastures where footing
Be extra-careful turning your horse out for the first time after
several days in the barn. An exercise session beforehand (riding,
hand walking, controlled longeing on safe footing) can help
minimize his desire to "party" when he first goes outside.
If he's really frisky and/or you're unable to provide any calming
exercise in advance, consult with your veterinarian about the
advisability of administering a mild sedative prior to turn-out.
PROBLEM #7: RESPIRATORY INFECTIONS
Your horse develops an upper respiratory infection ("a cold"),
most often due to a virus that spreads through the barn. In some
cases, a bacteria can complicate a simple viral infection,
leading to more serious problems like pneumonia.
Why in winter? Just as with humans, whenever horses are cooped up
in confined areas, infectious diseases become more of a risk. If
your horse lives in a barn during winter months, he has much
closer contact with others than when he lives outside; this ups
his chances of contracting a virus. In addition, when barns are
closed up tight to protect from cold conditions, ventilation
suffers-and so does your horse's respiratory system, making it
more susceptible to disease.
Ask your vet about an appropriate vaccination schedule against
respiratory viruses. Vaccination against common respiratory
viruses such as influenza and rhinopneumonitis can help prevent
those diseases, though it won't do much to protect your horse
against other random viruses. For that, minimizing direct contact
with other horses is the best strategy.
It's particularly important to isolate any newcomers to the barn
who might harbor unfamiliar viruses. As a rule of thumb, any
horses newly introduced to the barn should be kept isolated for a
period of 30 days.
Finally, strive to open up the barn as much as possible to
improve ventilation and minimize irritation to your horse's
Find "When to Blanket Your Horse in Winter" this month at Horse
To be continued from time to time