ELLSWORTH — When winter storms move into the area, television news reports usually urge residents to bring their pets inside. That’s all very well if the pet in question is a cat or dog, but not much help for Sharon Worcester of Southwest Harbor, whose pets, Bobby and Cash, are gelding horses.
For horse owners, winter cold and ice bring a season-long struggle to keep their pets warm and watered and exercising enough to stave off the winter blues. Worcester, in her first winter as a horse owner, admits she feels an instinctive urge to drape her pets in down comforters and lead them into the warm kitchen.
“My husband keeps telling me, `Honey, it’s a horse. It’s meant to be outside,”‘ said Worcester, who works as a police dispatcher in Bar Harbor.
While the horses are better off in the barn than snuggled up to the wood stove, they do need extra attention in the winter and a space heater in a hay-filled barn is too risky a combination.
According to Ellsworth veterinarian James Rausch, horses can remain comfortable in an unheated barn as long as they’ve got extra hay to eat, which generates far more body heat than grain. But he added that last fall’s bad hay harvest has driven prices up to $3-$4 a bale, double the price of the 1996-97 winter. A horse can easily eat half a bale of hay a day.
Rausch said horses don’t usually need blankets until the temperature starts dropping below zero. Worcester wrapped her horses in waterproof, wool-lined blankets during the cold snap around New Year’s. If owners choose to blanket their horses, they have to keep the blankets on all winter.
While horses will often stand outside in a snowstorm with half an inch of snow piled on their backs, snug under their shaggy winter hair, Rausch said freezing rain cuts right through to their skin.
“It’s a lot of common sense,” he said. “If you don’t want to be standing out in the freezing rain, probably your horse doesn’t either.”
A three-sided shelter will suffice to block the wind, said Penobscot veterinarian Joan Kasoff, but owners may want to keep their horses from going outside at all on icy days. Horses have no footing on ice, and a spread-eagled fall can often mean a broken leg or pelvis.
“If there’s ever a time, this is the week to keep them in,” said Kasoff. If the slippery conditions last for days on end, owners may need to salt and sand part of the pasture so the horses can stretch their legs. Work horses, which don’t have the option of being a barn couch potato during the winter, often wear winter shoes with metal cleats to help them keep their grip.
But exercise, even if it’s just a stroll down the road, helps prevent the horses’ serotonin levels from dropping, added Kasoff, which can cause seasonal affective disorder in animals as well as people. Kasoff said many horse owners even turn the radio on to entertain the horses through the dark months.
“I didn’t used to believe it, but it works,” said Kasoff.
The biggest problem is water: slogging through the snow carrying buckets of fresh tepid water to the barn to replace the bucket that froze hours ago. If horses don’t drink enough water, they have trouble digesting and may get colic, which can sometimes be fatal. And they need extra water to digest the roughage of the hay.
Some owners invest in a heater that keeps the water bucket from freezing, but that may not be any help when the power goes out for hours at a time. Worcester now adds molasses to each bucket, and Cash and Bobby have since been eagerly slurping their water up while it’s still in liquid form.