Watch Horses for Winter Wood ChewingBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · November 16, 2012
Horse management is somewhat different in winter than in summer, at least in some regions. If you live in an area where pastures go dormant, the ground freezes, and horses are stalled for part or all of each day rather than being turned out, your horses are prime candidates for developing bad habits. Arising partly from boredom and partly from other causes, these destructive and sometimes dangerous behaviors are easier to avoid than to cure.
Wood chewing is one habit that may pop up when your horses move into winter. Horses have a strong instinct to chew, and long periods of summer turnout allow them to graze for hours, munching on grass and other plants. Hay, the winter forage of choice, is often fed in limited quantities that leave a horse with a craving to chew on whatever may be within reach. Trees, wooden fences, stall doors, walls, and window frames make a satisfying crunch when chewed as well as an interesting ripping sound when pieces break away. Most horses don’t actually eat the tree bark or wood splinters, but they can still destroy a stall or fence over time just by chewing.
Cold weather often curtails regular exercise schedules because of problems with wind, rain, snow, and hard or icy ground. Energy that would normally be expended in training or riding is left to find another outlet, so horses may chew simply because there’s nothing else to occupy their time and interest. Other vices like weaving, cribbing, and stall kicking may also begin when horses spend hours in a stall, regardless of season.
What can you do to keep your horses from developing bad habits during the cold season? First, allow as much turnout as you can, even if the grass is dormant and grazing isn’t supplying much forage. Allowing horses to move and socialize will cut down on excess energy and boredom. You may want to designate one field for winter turnout, as the horses will churn some areas into muddy messes before spring comes.
Feed as much hay as possible. Instead of dumping an entire day’s hay ration into the stall at one time, try to provide smaller amounts more frequently. Consider using a hay feeder that limits easy access and requires the horse to pick small amounts of hay through a net or web. This will give the horse something to do and fill more of his time.
If your horse has to be kept inside a lot, make an effort to ride, longe, drive, or hand-walk him whenever you get the chance. Even if you can’t enhance conditioning or competition skills, these periods of easy work are chances to enjoy your horse as he burns some energy and sees some new sights.
Try to stable your horse where he can see or at least hear other horses. If this isn’t possible, consider getting a goat or small pony to keep him company. You may need a larger stall to keep both animals unless the companion is very small.
To keep destructive chewing to a minimum, protect wood surfaces by painting them with a commercial product designed to repel horses (ask at your feed store or tack shop for a product that’s safe for horses). You can also install an electric “hot wire” along the top fence board, cover exposed wood edges with metal or PVC shields, and fence around trees so horses can’t reach the bark.