Friday 26th of November 2021
Vet Advice

Winter problems

With the onset of winter, many horses will undergo regime changes which will inevitably impact on their daily management. This in turn gives rise to certain risk factors which should be identified and understood to avoid troubles during the winter months.


Increased stabling / cold weather

 This can lead to decreased water intake, increased fibre intake and decreased exercise. This is a combination which increases the incidence of impacted colic. Horses recovering from injury or illness have an increased risk of impaction. Horses who eat straw bedding are predisposed to impaction.


·       Horses on restricted exercise or box rest should be fed a laxative diet. Salt should be added to the food to stimulate water intake. In very cold weather taking the chill off water will help. It is important to monitor water intake. An adult 500kg horse requires 30 litres per day ( 3 x 2 gallon buckets) Feeding wet hay and damp feed helps increase water intake.

·       Regular exercise to stimulate gut motility.

·       Keep warm.

Azoturia / Tying Up / Exertional Myopathy

This is a metabolic disease which primarily occurs in muscularly fit horses maintained on a high plane of nutrition which have been rested for one or more days with no decrease in nutritional intake. Unfit overweight animals who are suddenly put into work are also predisposed to this disease. Once affected, there is an increased incidence of recurrence of this condition.


·       Management of diet and exercise regimes is the most valuable approach. Establish a strict feeding and exercise regime. If daily exercise is not achievable, reduced feed intake such as a convalescent mix should be fed when the horse is restricted.

Mud Fever / Cracked Heels

Wet cold conditions predispose horses to skin infections such as pastern dermatitis , cracked heels and mud fever. Wet conditions result in the protective oil layer of the skin to be breached , allowing infection to take hold. Stabled horses may suffer from the condition in the  hind feet due to urine scalding. Breeds with ‘feathers’ are more susceptible. It should be remarked that this is an infectious and contagious condition. The condition starts as a localised inflamed lesion with serum ooze and scab formation. If ignored this will progress to swelling of the legs (oedema), lameness and possibly a peculiar stringhalt type gait in some instances. In chronic cases fissures are created in the folds of skin under the fetlock resulting in cracked heels. Established skin infections in the lower limb often lead to damage to the integrity of the skin and result in horses being more prone to infection in the future. Mixed bacterial/fungal infection so unlikely to respond to antibiotics alone.


·       Early stages – remove the scab by poulticing or using warm salty water. Dry the leg and apply antiseptic cream or soothing ointment such as Silver Sulfadiazine (Flamazine).

·       More severe infections should be treated using antibiotic cream containing corticosteroids such as Fusidic acid and Betamethasone (Isaderm).

·       Keeping the legs clean and bandaging down to ground level will help protect against secondary infection.

·       Severe cases require clipping, removal of scabs and skin debris, topical antibiotics and anti inflammatory treatment in conjunction with a course of antibiotics.


·       Avoid turnout in muddy paddocks.

·       Remove mud by washing and drying the legs or let the mud dry and then brush off.

·       A waterproof protectant such as udder cream can be applied before turnout.



Rain Scald

A bacterial skin infection caused typically by ‘Dermatophilus Congolensis’. Predominately affects the back or areas of water run off. It is more prevalent in lean horses. Scabs form and if removed come off in a ‘paintbrush’ formation. This is an infectious and contagious condition.



·       Remove the scabs and treat topically with an antibiotic cream. The scab is an effective protectant and should be removed to allow access to the bacteria which in most cases is effectively treated topically.


·       Maintain horses’ condition to result in well hydrated and healthy skin.

·       Rug horses to protect them against inclement wet conditions.


In cold weather horses need to increase their daily intake. This is best achieved by feeding little and often. Although an increase in the ‘hard feed’ ration is desirable, it must be balanced with the exercise regime to avoid ‘tying up’. Ad lib hay is preferable in winter and when in the field, the feeding areas should be rotated to avoid severe poaching of the paddock.





It is advisable to worm with a drug licensed for encysted red worm larvae (e.g. moxidectin) before the start of winter to reduce the number of over-wintering larvae in the gut wall.

Foot Care

Always important throughout the year, but good foot care and foot balance is critical especially when the ground is frosted. If turned out on poached frosted, well balanced and maintained feet are less likely to be damaged.


Atypical myopathy

Although first recognised in 1942 in the UK as a severe muscle weakness and tying up syndrome in grazing horses, the cause was not identified until  2012, when the disease was linked to consumption of certain Acer species, namely the sycamore maple. Ypung horses appear to be more prone to the disease.

The toxin in these helicopter seeds, (hypoglycin A) triggers profound skeletal and cardiac weakness, commonly leading to death. Avoiding ingestion of the toxin is the only prevention.

Identify any sycamore maple trees adjacent to paddocks and ensure they are fenced off to avoid access to dropped seeds.

Keep horses in paddocks where there is adequate feed to reduce the risk of them eating from hedgerows or ingesting less palatable foodstuffs such as sycamore seeds or acorns.

Ensure adequate hay is available and feed it in the middle of the field away from any potential hazards such as sycamore or oak trees. If possible, rake up and remove seeds and acorns.

The risk of this disease increases with certain weather conditions such as stormy/windy weather increasing seed drop. Furthermore, incidence appears to increase when a wet spell follows a prolonged dry spell.

By Simon Knapp LVO BSc BVetMed MRCVS

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