The cold weather brings a few unusual hazards of which horse owners should be aware.
Every year, we see cases in which water-tank and bucket heaters malfunction and cause stray voltage accidents. Heaters that are grounded improperly actually can electrify the entire tank or bucket.
The voltage usually is not enough to be lethal, but is enough to create a "shock" when horses go to drink, and this often is enough to prevent them from coming back for a second dose. Horses can dehydrate quickly, which can result in them going off feed and developing colic. When you set up your tank heaters for the year, inspect them for damage from the previous season, ensure they're grounded properly when you install them, and cautiously test the water yourself before letting your horse test it. If you're in doubt about the safety of any heater, it's well worth it to get a new one.
Another potential hazard can be blankets. If your horses are blanketed in the winter, be diligent about checking blankets daily to ensure they haven't slipped or lost a strap. Also, survey the horse's environment for any projections on which a blanket can get caught. Horses that do get caught, either on an external object or with a blanket around the neck, can panic quickly and injure themselves severely on the strong, nylon straps of the blanket.
Also be aware that shoes can build up large snowballs in snowy weather.
The snowballs are difficult to walk on, and predispose your horse to trips and falls. They also can bruise the feet and lead to laminitis.
Shoes either should be pulled off for the winter months or fitted with snowpads to prevent this.
Also be cognizant of the effects that snow and ice can have on your horse's stable environment. Snow that melts partially and refreezes can form a sheet of ice in paddocks and corrals, and falls on this icy footing can easily result in fractured bones.
In our experience, falls on ice are one of the leading causes of pelvic fractures. Ice falling off the barn roof can be a direct hazard if your horse happens to be situated underneath it at the time. Or it quickly can turn into a large, icy obstacle that your horse must negotiate to get into the stall.
Barn fires are uncommon, but take measures to minimize the risk. Before turning on tack-room heaters, clean the dust and debris from the grills and move any flammable materials that may have been stored in front of them. If you set up heat lamps, take precautions to prevent horses from knocking them down or dislodging them.
Very cold temperatures can create a risk of frostbite on extremities. Frostbite usually occurs on the tips of the ears and can actually cause loss of this tissue, resulting in rounded ears. When temperature and wind chill drop the thermometer below 10 degrees, consider keeping horses inside.
Dr. Wendy Krebs, D.V.M
Dr. Krebs of Bend Equine Medical Clinic can be reached at 541-388-4006.