When it still feels like fall to you, your horses know better! And they start putting on their winter coats in response to the diminishing hours of daylight, whether there is a chill in the air, and this winter coat is a forerunner of the cold weather to come. Why not spend a few hours—or days—getting your stable and farm ready? It’s a lot more pleasant to do fall and winter farm prep work while the weather is still nice, and there are a few jobs that you won’t be able to do once there is snow on the ground. Here are a few things you’ll want to prepare.
You did remember to wash them before you stored them, right? If not, a quick trip to the laundromat might be in order. While you’re at it, clean and put away some of your summer horse equipment: fly sheets, fly spray, fly masks, fly traps…you get the idea.
Fence Repairs: The cooler temperatures of fall make for a nice time to work on fencing—a lot better than trying to fix a broken post or rail during a snowstorm! Take a walk (or a ride) around your fencing and make a list of any repairs that will be needed before the chill hits.
For electric fencing, remember that winter can cause grounding trouble (either from dry conditions or snow insulating the ground). You might want to add some ground rods in advance before the soil is frozen.
Watering Systems: Even if you live in a climate with warmer winters, don’t take chances with your barn’s water system. If there’s any risk that you’ll experience sub-freezing temperatures, make it a priority to shut off and drain the water from any exterior valves or hydrants that aren’t protected from the cold.
While heat tape or insulating foam might help for some isolated frosts and freezes, a burst pipe can be a big expense (and a big mess), so it might be wiser to not take the risk.
On the other hand, frostless hydrants or automatic waterers that safely drain water back down below the frostline after each use can stay in service all winter long—even in northern regions with long, harsh winters. You’ll also want to roll up, drain, and store your hoses.
Ice Prevention: You’ll also need a solid plan during fall farm prep for how you will keep your horses supplied with warm, ice-free water all winter. Your options will depend on your climate, but choices include heated electric buckets (these can work very well inside the stall), insulated water buckets, trough heaters, and the previously mentioned frostless automatic waterers or hydrants.
Also, prep for icy conditions around concrete walkways and doors by keeping some salt, animal-safe ice melt, and/or sand on hand.
Medications: While on the subject of things freezing, be sure to put away any equine medications or other items that might be ruined if they get too cold.
Tires: Cold weather has a surprising effect on tires—it condenses the air inside, which can cause the pressure (PSI) to drop significantly.
When the first cold snap hits, be sure to check the tire pressures on your tractor, ATV/UTV, truck, and horse trailer (if you plan to use it in the cold), as well as in tools like wheelbarrows, handcarts, et cetera. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself pushing around a wheelbarrow that seems far too heavy, only to discover that cold temperatures had robbed the tires of their pressure.
Machinery: Any farm machinery that you don’t intend to use during the winter should be “put to bed” properly. It’s often wise to pull the battery and store it in a warm location; this will help the battery hold its charge in case you do need to operate the machine for some reason.
Try to avoid leaving the fuel tanks partially full, as the empty space in the tank can cause condensation to form. A good plan is to top off the fuel tank and then add a gasoline stabilizer to keep the fuel fresh until spring.
Another option is to completely drain the machine’s fuel system (tank, lines, carburetor) and let it sit empty all winter. Simply running the machine until it runs out of gas isn’t enough—you have to actually remove all fuel from the engine for this to work properly.
Pastures: Whether you have snow on the ground or not, winter can be hard on your horse’s pastures. With the grass dormant, overgrazing becomes a real possibility, thus damaging the grasses and promoting the growth of weeds the next summer.
Mud during the spring while the snow melts can also be problematic, particularly in smaller pastures. One option here is to limit your horses’ pasture access during the winter by temporarily fencing off a smaller sacrifice area where they can spend the cold months. Ideally, the footing of this area would be prepared ahead of time and raised higher than the surrounding ground with gravel (not sand), or even geotextile pads.
Also, in the big picture, it helps if the pastures slope slightly (2 percent or more) to promote drainage; sometimes professionally re-grading of the pasture is needed.
Stalls: Proper stable ventilation is one thing—drafts are another. While fresh air inside the stable is critical for equine respiratory health, you definitely don’t want your horse standing in a draft inside his stall.
During fall farm prep, double check your stalls for excessive air movement.
Snow removal: If your region experiences significant snowfall—frequent storms totaling a few inches or more—you’ll also need a snow-removal plan. Simply stashing a couple of snow shovels isn’t enough; in case of heavy snowfall, you’ll need to consider other options.
You can try a snowblower for clearing walking paths and areas in the pastures for your horses to walk, or you could try a snow blade on your ATV or tractor. You also may need a larger snow removal system capable of handling the stable’s driveway and parking areas.
Finally, be sure to take a walk around your entire property prior to the first snowfall to clear paths of rocks, large sticks, or any other objects that might become buried and interfere with the snow removal process.
Once your winter preparation checklist is completed, you can rest easy when the first cold snap hits, knowing that you and your horses are ready to go.
This article about fall farm prep originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!