Weathering the worst

Mother Nature prepares ponies well for winter… with the correct care from us they can happily weather the worst of the season. Images by Dusty Perin

DSC_7238 leading in the pony copyMost ponies can cope with even freezing temperatures on a sunny day. It’s cold combined with rain and wind that’s really unpleasant and that’s when he’ll need extra care.

Ponies need shelter from rain and wind mainly so their coats can dry out – when it’s wet the hairs lie down and provide less insulation. A pony will fluff his coat up to trap air between the hairs to keep warmth in.

Wild ponies will dig through snow to find the grass underneath. Don’t make it too hard for YOUR pony, though – he’d much rather you give him some hay!

Comfort eating

Roughage, or forage, is the most important part of any horse or pony’s diet. It adds bulk, which keeps your pony’s digestive system working properly, and helps keep him both warm and occupied. Grass is the most common form of forage, but it’s in short supply over winter, so you need to replace it with something else.

Hay: Hay is made from long grass, cut, dried and baled, usually in early summer. Its nutrient content and quality depends on the types of grasses and other plants contained in it, and the way it was harvested and stored. Varieties of hay include lucerne, which is the most nutritious but expensive, oaten, grass or meadow (sometimes called orchard hay). Good quality, yummy hay is leafy with minimal stems, sweet-smelling, free from weeds, dust, stones and mould, and should be pale green in colour.

Haylage: Haylage is hay that has been ‘ensiled’, sealed in air-tight wrappings with a high moisture content and allowed to ferment, which preserves the nutrients better than traditional air-dried hay. This means it is also dust-free, making it ideal for horses and ponies with respiratory problems. But it can also grow dangerous bacteria if it is incorrectly baled or stored – reject any sour-smelling or slimy haylage.

Chaff: Chopped hay, so has the same nutritional value. It is usually mixed with other feeds to stop the horse bolting the grain part of his dinner. Molasses is sometimes added to minimise the dust in chaff.

Commercial forages: Basically grass and lucerne, minus some of the water and with molasses added. They are virtually a complete feed for horses and ponies in low to moderate work, and they have the great advantage of being consistent in quality and easier to store than hay. But on the downside, they are more expensive, and once opened, bags need to be used within a week or two.

Sugar beet pulp: Not a grain, as many people think, but a form of forage. Despite its name, sugar beet is not sweet – it is the fibrous bit left over when the actual sugar is extracted from sugar beets, which is then dehydrated for packaging. It then MUST be soaked in water before feeding. It’s a terrific addition to a pony’s diet when other forage is of poor quality, particularly for older horses who can’t manage enough hay, and to add variety and bulk to your feed bucket.

Nippy necessities  

Don’t hide under your duvet and skimp on your pony’s winter care. You’ll need to do these jobs regularly:DSC_6578 horse drinking from frozen water tank copy

  • Clear troughs of ice on frosty mornings.
  • Put out hay or haylage. Winter grass hasn’t much goodness, so ponies need extra hay to top up. When it’s extra-cold, wet and windy, they’ll need extra rations to stay warm.
  • If he wears a rug, check to see it is remaining waterproof, and that he’s warm enough. A quick way to check if a pony is warm is to feel the base of his ears, or just under his elbow. He should feel cosy to the touch in these places. If he isn’t, he’ll need another layer.
  • Look after his feet. Even unshod hooves need picking out daily, and ALL ponies need regular visits from the farrier, right throughout the year.
  • Stick to a worming schedule, as recommended by your vet, and make sure your pony has at least an annual check by an equine dentist. Bad teeth and/or worms will make him lose condition fast, and he’ll find it really hard to put this back on over winter.
  • Watch his weight. If he starts losing condition he will need extra food and probably a warmer rug (though being too hot and sweaty can also make him lose condition), especially if he’s older. Speak to an experienced horsey adult to work out the best diet for him.DSC_7260 winter riding model released copy– This article was first published in the winter 2014 issue of PONIES! magazine