The winter months bring with them cold, wet and mud. Not the ideal conditions to try to care for horses, especially if your yard isn’t well-equipped to deal with such weather. Many horse owners seek new livery arrangements in the autumn- with October and November being the busiest time for vacancy searches on the LiveryList site. Sadly, many horse owners also move again in the spring having found their winter stabling has not lived up to their expectations. With many of the opinion that ‘grass is always greener’… is this true when the grass is replaced by mud!?
If you’re looking to move yard, or have a yard of your own, we have listed below some essential considerations for yard facilities and management to help them manage well in the weather that winter can bring, from weatherproof facilities to forward planning by yard owners… I am sure this may give you all something to think about when viewing yards, or planning your yard management for the winter!
Whilst most winter yard management is a case of forward planning and common sense, and with many of the points raised below potentially saving you time and money, it is important to remember that the facilities on offer will be heavily determined by the budget you have and the livery packages on offer. As such, when viewing yards for lesser budgets or simpler packages, you should consider what you deem the most important aspects of winter management that will ensure you and your horses remain safe and happy over the winter months. Most importantly, you should be satisfied that the yard is managed by a team you feel are competent and experienced in year-round horse management, and are therefore competent in their abilities to provide a good service and to care for your horse in a manner that meets your expectations.
Grazing and Turnout:
Livery yards offer grazing. That’s what they do. But how useful is this grazing when it’s bare or turned to mud? Many yards will still turn out year round even if the grass is low so the horses can get out and stretch their legs. Ideally, a yard that provisions for summer and winter grazing with separate paddocks can, in theory, provide grass for longer than yards who graze the same paddocks year round. The provision of ad-lib hay or haylage in the winter months can also be a great addition but it’s important to know where you stand with this and what the responsibility and cost are.
It is important to be very clear on any winter turnout restrictions before you accept a space on a yard. What does a yard do in torrential rain- some will still allow turnout, others may restrict or stop turnout until rain has stopped and water levels reduced. Grazing is a wonderful thing until it is taken away, and if you have a highly strung horse or one with medical issues that fare better outside, then being cooped up in a stable for days on end is not ideal. As well as this, reduced turnout means more time in the stable poo-ing and pee-ing and leaving you with a harder and slower mucking out regime and potentially higher costs for bedding and hay.
Some yards now offer all-weather turnout options, be this a specific field or a specially constructed hardstanding or sand paddock just to allow the horses to stretch their legs. If turnout is not possible, the ability to be able to put the horse somewhere like this for a short while to get them out and for you to do your yard jobs is great and can make mucking out so much easier than having to work around a horse that’s penned in its stable with a wheelbarrow! It’s worth checking if there are any all-weather turnout provisions like this is offered by the yard, and what restrictions are in place, such as time limits or if they are allowed to be turned out with company.
Limited turnout- not just for grazing but for ‘free time’ such as playing and socialising in the paddocks with other horses- is beneficial to horses mental wellbeing. It is proven that for certain horses, being cooped up long-term in their stables over winter months can result in vices and behavioural problems due to their lack of exercise and turnout. Stable and ridden vices can take hold very quickly if they go unnoticed initially or are not dealt with correctly and could potentially affect the enjoyment of handling and riding your horse. It is therefore worth considering the personality and behavioural traits of your horse as a priority when looking at options for turnout.
Water is also an important but often overlooked consideration. How is water supplied to paddocks- automatic troughs, buckets, hose? While playing with water in the summer months can be enjoyable, trudging sloshing buckets of water to paddocks in the winter is less so, and even more so when you are trying to deal with frozen taps and getting enough water to the fields for the consumption. Make sure that a yard has an adequate plan to deal with paddock water, and a contingency plan in the event that supplies to the yard are frozen.
Same as with the grazing, winter turnout is great- but how much so when your horse comes in caked in mud and you can barely get through a gateway because your wellies are vacuumed into a muddy hole? Free-draining fields such as those on a slight slope or chalky ground are ideal for grazing equines. No standing water, and much less mud. The reduction in mud means any grass will be prevalent longer, it also means in the event of heavy rain standing water and horses standing in puddles is much less likely.
Gateways can be a difficult and dangerous area in the winter months with potentially bringing horses in the pouring rain, with deep mud in the gateway, wind blowing the gate shut and other horses jostling to be taken in. Not a fun experience. It is important to consider the process of bringing your horse in from the field as well and that this will be safe. Ideally, mud-reducing measures in gateways- such as hardcore of plastic grids- and well-maintained gates to make a quick exit are ideal, as well as a sensible bringing in regime meaning horses are not crowded at gateways of an evening.
Not only the mud in the field but mud on the yard in general- parking, access to fields, the route to the muckheap… trawling through mud for any job on the yard can make it take longer and be messier. Parking is also a consideration, a hardstanding, car park or road parking can be ideal, parking on slightly muddy areas or grass verges where you risk getting stuck is not!
And the after effects of the mud as well. Many yards will have a wash down area permitting you to wash down your horse’s legs when you bring them in of an evening but its always worth checking. Many yards these days restrict this due to high water bills and making the yard area even wetter which can be a danger in icy conditions. Similarly, wet rugs. Do you have somewhere suitable to hang wet and muddy rugs that is easy to access- worth checking this as there is nothing worse than wrestling a wet and heavy rug back on in the morning!
Stables are ideal for winter horse management- for obvious reasons. It keeps them, clean, warm and dry. But not if it is draughty, leaking and facing the open fields to blow a gale straight in the door! Give a prospective stable a good check over- the condition of the roof, how exposed it is and also the likelihood of any water infiltration in the event of flooding or heavy rain- either from the roof or the floor- that can ruin the bed and make it more costly time and money wise to maintain. If your horse is having to spend a lot of time in their stable due to restricted turnout or bad weather you want to ensure they will be as comfortable as possible.
How close is the stabling to paddocks, water supply, the muck heap, feed and tack rooms, the arena? All worth considering if you have to go these distances in the rain or cold and snow. In the winter months, there are fewer daylight hours, so it is important to be able to do everything quickly and efficiently. The tidiness of the yard is important too. You want to be able to find tools and equipment promptly and not be spending ten minutes emptying someone else’s wheelbarrow or looking for a shavings fork. A tidy yard will also be well organised and make jobs easier if you can go straight to the things you need.
If you compete over the winter months, the ability to get your horse clean will be an important factor in being well turned out. If the fields are muddy, your horse will be too and you need a way to make them sparkle! Most yards will offer a wash down facility although many horses will not appreciate a full on cold water bath when its chilly outside. Hot wash down areas with specific horse showers are becoming commonplace, along with solariums so the horse can be dried and warmed swiftly. Ideal for a quick afternoon shampoo before an event and not having to deal the best you can with a bucket of cold water and a dandy brush!
Even if you do not compete, the ability to keep your horse clean is paramount to good management and will help keep away issues like mud-fever, as well as being able to see easily if there are any field injuries. If there is a veterinary emergency you would also need to be able to access clean, fresh water. And let’s not forget the farrier. If you’ve ever presented a muddy horse to a farrier you will know how unappreciative they will be of being plastered in mud trying to locate a horses hoof between muddy feet and sopping wet feathers!
An arena is fantastic in the winter- an indoor arena even better, allowing you to ride in all weathers. With limited daylight hours, floodlights or an indoor school can allow riding even when dark. However, it is worth checking the routine of other liveries too as an arena of any sorts is great, but not so much when there are five riders all trying to squeeze in of an evening! It is also worth asking how well outdoor arenas fare in wet weather. While an arena is great, one that gets deep tracks and puddles when the weather is wet is not only unhelpful but can potentially lead to accidents and injuries if not properly maintained.
If a yards arena is not floodlit, this will give you limited daylight hours to exercise your horse, especially if your work restricts visits in the daytime. One option when there is less time to exercise is a lunging session as an alternative but to give a good amount of exercise. Many yards these days restrict lunging in areas to maintain the arena surface, so this is something that should be checked if this is something you are likely to want to do.
Horse walkers are also another benefit in the winter months. Even on days that are too wet to turnout or ride, you can pop your horse on the horse walker for them to stretch their legs and get them out of the stable while you muck out. Again, it is important to check any restrictions on the use of such facilities.
Due to the darker nights, winter hacking can be more hazardous than light sunny days in the summer. Even if you wear hi-viz, it is always more risky riding in winter months with the added possibility of fog and rain. It’s worth considering a yards access- i.e if the yard entrance is on to a quiet lane or busy road- and the proximity to off-road. It’s not ideal to have to ride miles up a busy road for a short canter track. Even better if a yard has its own hacking, direct off-road access or even its own canter track or gallops. Again, even if this is the case it is certainly worth checking their winter policy as some yards will close tracks and private hacking over wet times to preserve for the following year.
It is definitely worth asking during a viewing how well a yard plans for extreme weather and other issues over the winter months. As with most things, forward planning is the key. A well-managed yard should be able to quickly and efficiently deal with any issues and take prior steps to prevent problems from arising.
A yard that plans as best as possible to give adequate paddock rotation for winter grazing should be much better than one that chucks all horses in the same paddocks year-round and hopes for good weather. Or at least a yard that plans in advance to have enough forage in stock to provide ad-lib hay in the fields at a reasonable cost, and to forewarn liveries if this is likely to be a cost they may incur over the winter rather than springing it on them when they grass runs dry.
Little measures as well such as flood prevention, a back up generator to provide electric in the event of a power cut, gritting or salting the yard to provide a safe way to move around of snowy or icy, and back up plans for water supplies or prevention of buckets and troughs freezing over are all signs of a yard that should be able to cope in all conditions over the winter.
Extreme Weather and Yard Cover:
If there is snow, floods, gales or anything else affecting your ability to get to the yard despite trying who would look after the horses? Is it a rural yard with no one on site that would be hard to access in such a situation or do the owners live on site. A yard where owners or staff are on site at least assures that there is a person there to take charge and make decisions with regards to the care of animals, be it chuck hay in until owners can get there, or take the decisions to put all horses on full livery that day (albeit for a charge!).
A yard that is prepared in advance for such an eventuality can only be advantageous to horse owners in ensuring that their horses will be getting the best possible care even in their absence. The last thing you want to do if you cannot get to the yard is to worry about who will be attending to the horses, and being satisfied that your horse is safe. Also, ask about communication methods for the yard in such circumstances- make sure lines of communication are clear. Group messages such as Facebook or WhatsApp can be really useful to communicate quickly with liveries to advise of any problems or access issues and to ensure everyone receives any information so it’s worth asking the yard if they have anything like this in place.
If the yard supplies bedding and forage, are their stocks enough for the winter months. Straw and hay shortages are common in some areas and whether bedding and forage is supplied as part of your livery package, or if you have to purchase from the yard you will always be tied in to what they want to charge. If their stocks run low, or they change supplier or prices are increased this cost is likely to be passed on to you. Question this when you view yards. Some yards will still alow liveries to supply their own forage and bedding and if so you need to make sure you have adequate storage to stockpile for the winter, and not have to get delivered or drive and collect supplies every week.
If you are on a DIY package, does the storage provided allow you to be prepared in advance? If you have time of a weekend, you can prepare all of your feeds and haynets at once and they are all ready to be put in through the week saving you valuable time, and ensuring they are prepared in advance if the horse needs to be covered by the yard owner or their staff for any reason. It is worth checking storage allocations in feed rooms and hay barns to make sure you are satisfied that thse can accommodate your needs.
It is important to check if a yard has opening and closing times and whether these are restricted in the winter. If you need to attend to your horse before or after work the likelihood is that it is going to be dark but you will need both access to the yard and lights to be able to see what you are doing!
Whilst you can never guarantee full-time access to any yard due to winter or extreme weather, it is always worth considering if the access given is suitable year round. It is important to consider if under normal circumstances, a yard accessible in any weather- is the track or road to the yard liable to flooding, or do you have to drive on muddy tracks or gateways to get into the yard or park? If it snows are the local roads cleared or it is a small lane which is hard to access or may be closed due to snow, floods or ice? The are important considerations as if you cannot get to the yard in bad weather, this may cost you more in yard cover than you expect, or in worst case scenarios there may be no one able to access the yard and take care of the horses.
There are still some yards that are not on mains electricity, that either does not have an electric supply or run off of a generator. This is certainly a consideration for winter horse management as whilst great in the light of the summer, fumbling around in feed rooms or paddocks using the light from your phone is much less glamorous! It also means no hot water for cups of tea, no lights for veterinary management, and also safety issues too with no security lights or lights for accessing the yard.
One rarely considered issue is the mobile signal. Check the mobile signal on the yard. A lack of mobile signal can be a pain but even more so if there is a medical or veterinary emergency, an issue whilst out hacking or suchlike. It means not only can you not be contacted when you are at the yard, but also means it will be hard for you to contact a vet or emergency services in the event of an accident, or for you to contact the yard or their staff to request services or send important information.
These are just a few considerations when viewing yards. It is not exhaustive but will give you perhaps some extra things to think about next time you view a potential yard, with a view to it to being your horses permanent home. It is, therefore, necessary to make sure it really is suitable for your needs year round and that you will not be disappointed by your choice. Don’t shy away from asking yard owners any questions about their rules, facilities or policies… they would not want unhappy clients on the yard so should be more than happy to answer any questions honestly to ensure new clients and horses will settle well and that their expectations will meet what the yard has on offer.