With the winter of 2012-13 behind us, it is time to start planning for 2013. If you believe the predictions, 2013 is going to be at best a repeat of 2012 in terms of rainfall and hay availability. Therefore, start preparing now!
Body Condition Scoring (BCS)
Establish a base for your animals now. Ideally, your equids should be about a BCS of 5 over a 9 point scale. For further information on how your animal scores, read eXtension HorseQuest's Learning Lesson: How to Body Condition Score Horses. In order to accurately BCS your animal, you must touch the animal as described in the above website, as a long hair coat will be very deceptive. Spring always causes a lot of shocked owners to call their veterinarian for the sudden weight loss their animal experienced when in reality it was only that the horse lost its winter coat and the reality of the true BCS has occurred. We have had a number of animals in the clinic that were a BCS of 2.0 and below – the owner never touched the animal or if blanketed never looked under the blanket for weeks at a time. Once an animal drops below a BCS of 4.0, it is much more prone to developing hypothermia if the weather becomes very cold, wet or windy.
The most crucial concern is adequate feed for this year and the winter to come. Daily feed intake is about 1.5 to 2.0% of body weight on a dry matter basis to just maintain an individual. If the horse is regaining lost weight from the winter of 2012/2013, working, growing, late pregnant or lactating, they will need both more feed and feed of higher quality.
If you are lucky enough to have some land for pasture, use it wisely. If horses have been turned out on this land over the winter, they should be monitored closely on spring pastures to prevent overeating and overgrazed pastures. If the horses are left on the pasture when it is wet, they will turn it into a muddy mess that will be of limited nutritional benefit. Allow the pasture to grow to 4-6 inches before allowing the horse to have limited access to the pasture. Gradually introduce the horse to the pasture over a couple of weeks to prevent digestive upsets and laminitis. If you have horses that are at risk of laminitis, they should wear a grazing muzzle to limit intake. In addition, if the pasture is large, you will provide more forage by dividing the pasture into several smaller pastures and rotating the horses between the pastures as the grass is eaten down. If the pastures are being over grazed due to overstocking or decreasing rainfall as we move into summer with the potential for another drought, the horse should again be placed in a dry/sacrifice lot. When the pasture has regrown with increasing rainfall, animals may be slowly reintroduced to the pastures until fall/winter again necessitates having the horses return to a dry lot to prevent pasture damage.
Since most horse owners will not be likely to have enough pasture to provide all the forage required, hay will need to be purchased. This spring hay may become more available as people look to clean out their barns and make room for the first cutting hay crop. Although last years hay will have lost some of its nutritional value and may be dustier than hay harvested in 2013, I would purchase as much of this hay (if reasonable quality) as can easily be stored since most climatologists are predicting another year of decreased precipitation and wide spread drought.
In addition, the recent rain and snow fall that we have received should provide enough moisture for a reasonable first cutting hay harvest. Try to purchase most, if not all the hay you will need to get thorough the coming winter of 2013-2014 as this will assure your animals adequate forage and you will not be frantically trying to find hay in February. As well, hay prices although likely higher than what has been charged in past years will still be more reasonable than in the deep of winter. Another advantage of having purchased your hay early and in bulk is the ability to have it analyzed for nutritional quality. This will allow you to feed your animals for optimal performance and maintain an appropriate BCS, especially over the winter when energy demand increase greatly due to dropping temperatures and the wind chill factor.
Finally, although it is extremely hard to do for all of us, determine if you can afford to winter the number of animals you currently have. It is much easier to find a viable and humane solution to too many horses when the weather is still warm and multiple options may exist.
Make sure your horses have shelter from the elements – sun, precipitation, and wind. Horses need protection from the heat of the summer sun during the hottest months of summer, but also against the cold wet rains and snow of winter. A shelter doesn’t need to be a fancy stall, but can be as simple as a group of trees that serve as a wind break. Run-in sheds are a good resource when no natural shelter is available.
In conclusion, hopefully my fears of another hay year like 2012 prove to be unfounded. However, I would rather have horse owners sitting watching the snow fly in February 2014 with a happy horse in good body condition and a barn full of hay!