Taking care of your herd over the winter

Infographic Below!

As a Camp Director or Horsemanship Coordinator, winter is generally a slower season for activities that involve our horses. Depending on your camp set up, it’s possible that the responsibility of feeding and daily care of the horses is delegated to a “caretaker” over the colder months. Sometimes, the caretaker is simply a staff member who is around enough to take care of these tasks, and they may not have too much interest or experience with horses to begin with. What is the best way to make sure that your horses stay safe and healthy, and set your caretaker up for success without being forced to turn into a “horse person”?

As people who have invested in our herds, learned about horse health and gained experience in this area, it is easy for us to overwhelm workers with excessive knowledge when, in reality, they just need to use basic observational skills and be aware of a few horse-specific signs of injury/poor health.

When delegating this important task, set your caretaker up for success. First, give them a few simple things to look for while they are taking care of your herd (more on that, below). Second, make a plan that includes a “next step” contact person – this can be yourself or another senior staff member who has more experience with horses. A vet is not an ideal contact person for this, as it is intimidating to call a vet about a suspected injury – especially as a person with less horse experience. The contact should be someone that the caretaker is comfortable calling and talking to; remember that it’s better to hear about a bunch of silly cuts and bumps rather than not hear about something that could be very serious. Lastly, know what a “win” is, and communicate this to your caretaker. You can’t expect them to a) know what colic is b) diagnose it and c) deal with it. You CAN, however, expect them to call you after they notice that a horse is behaving differently than the rest. That phone call is the win here. From there, you can ask more questions and determine a course of action to help the horse if it is necessary to do so. Setting expectations and a definition of what success looks like before the task is given to your caretaker will allow both of you to be on the same page and will set up a positive process regarding the care of your herd.

In keeping information as simple as possible, here are some signs that your caretaker can look for based on their natural senses.

Visual

Encourage your caretaker to watch your herd for things that are out of the ordinary. They can be looking for these signs:

  1. Blood.
    This should come pretty naturally, as in any animal, seeing blood is not a good sign. You can explain that if the wound is very small and has already dried/scabbed and looks clean that it is not as much of a concern. If possible, show some examples on your horses of little nicks and scratches.  Remember to have grace and patience for your caretaker – they are learning and gaining experience and together, your mutual definition of success is noticing and reporting any abnormalities.
  2. Limping.
    We know that limping can be caused by a range of underlying injuries, but explaining each of these in detail to your caretaker will not benefit them. Let the caretaker know that a limp is a sign that you want to know about, and tell them how to spot it – the horse will walk differently than the others and its head movement will appear exaggerated. Tell them to watch for a few minutes and if it’s continual (and not just the horse tripping and recovering), they should call you. That’s a win! You can talk them through anything else from there.
  3. Weight.
    Each horse carries their weight slightly differently, but there are a few things that your staff can look for to make sure they’re healthy. Teach them to look in the area of the horse’s ribs for weight loss. As a caretaker, your staff will likely not have the experience required to quickly determine what is a normal weight for each and every one of your horses, and often weight gain or loss occurs over a period of time. Show them what a normal weight looks like and then simply encourage them to call you if they think a horse has gained or lost weight.
  4. Urine/Feces.
    Your staff should know what normal excretion looks like for a horse and take note of anything out of the ordinary. Diarrhea or urinating issues are signs that you are going to want to know about. Remember, you don’t need to go into details of what it means if a horse has any symptoms, just drive home the point that they need to call you if they see these things. *It is a fairly common occurrence in the winter to notice what appears to be red urine on the ground. This happens as a result of a chemical reaction between horse urine and the snow and is no cause for alarm. If, however, your staff sees pink or red urine coming out of a horse, they should know to alert you.

Touch

If, after checking the herd out visually, there is a concern of injury, you can tell your caretaker to feel if the area is warm. This may be difficult during the winter, but if they compare the injured area (for example the knee), with the opposite knee, a significant difference in temperature could indicate a problem that should be looked at.

Smell

Some bacterial infections cause a horse to have an unusual odour. You can let your staff know that an odd smell can be a sign that something is not right and ask them to call you if they notice it.

Sound

If your staff suspects any kind of injury, listening to sounds from the horse can give further clues as to a potential problem. Some things they can listen for are:

  • Laboured breathing
  • Absence of gut sounds (tummy rumbling)
  • Straining or grunting sounds

These auditory cues are important to take note of and look into further.

Allow your staff to take ownership of this task. Empower and encourage them that they are the ones who are being entrusted with this important task to take care of your camp’s valuable animals. Regardless of whether the staff member has an interest in horses or not, providing them with the right tools, taking the time to explain a these tips clearly, and giving them a simple plan for getting assistance when needed will set them – and your horses – up for success this winter.

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