Written By: Lisa Nesson, DVM
In the last two weeks, we've had a huge snow storm, then warm weather, then a large rain storm, then more melting, and now we have freezing temperatures. That means we have a lot water in southern Wisconsin. That also means that in the next few days, we're going to have a lot of ice in your barnyards, walkways, paddocks and pastures. Turning horses out safely has become a challenge, to say the least.
What can you do to keep them safe?
Drainage is key to preventing ice in the first place. Well drained walkways, paddocks and pastures won't develop ice unless the amount of water is overwhelming. In warmer weather, observe your areas after a rain storm and correct any drainage problems you see. During the rest of the year, be sure to keep drainage ways effective by clearing them of hay, manure, debris and snow piles that may block the waters' pathway.
If the areas for turn out are icy, just don't use them, if at all possible. Be sure to investigate the walkways, paddocks and pastures yourself before leading the horses out there and turning them loose. Horses don't skate very well.
Borium studs on their shoes may help but I wouldn't recommend relying on them completely.
If ice is found in small areas, spread traction substances like ash, cat litter, barn lime, sand, chicken grit or salt. Salt can be used if the weather is warm enough to make it effective, but avoid ice melt compounds that are not labeled safe for animals. If salt is used, allow enough time for it to melt the ice before walking the horses across the area or turning them out on it.
Larger areas of ice can be treated with dirty shavings bedding that is warm from the manure pile. That sounds odd, but when it's warm, it melts into the surface and provides that much needed traction.
Be sure to check around feeding areas and water tanks to make sure that footing is not compromised in these high traffic areas or where horses may push/shove a bit resulting in someone falling on the slick footing. Be sure not to run water tanks over, adding water on top of an already slick surface or further expanding your ice problems.
What should you do if they fall?
If your horse finds the slippery spot before you do and falls, here are some tips to help get them up without injury or without further injury.
Remain calm and try to calm the horse down to prevent further fruitless struggling. Bring them some hay or grain to munch on while you organize your rescue efforts.
Minimize struggling and useless efforts to stand on slippery footing. If they weren't hurt by the initial fall, they could be injured severely by struggling to stand on bad footing.
Don't put yourself in danger trying to help your horse. If you get hurt, all efforts to help your horse will be diverted to help you. In the end, your horse may be lost as a result of efforts to save you.
If your horse is obviously injured (fractured limb, significant lacerations, extremely cold), call your veterinarian first for guidance and to get them on their way to your farm.
Warm them up if needed. Blankets, straw/hay, and heaters can be used to raise their body temperature while you wait for your veterinarian. If the horse's body temperature is very low they may not be capable of standing until they are warmer.
Improve the footing they are currently on with a large piece of carpeting, heavy rubber mats that won't move on the ice, or some of the other traction substances discussed previously.
If you need to move them to get better traction, consider how to safely move them to better footing so that subsequent efforts to stand are rewarding. Be sure adequate personnel and equipment are available before attempting this so that injuries are not made worse by inadequate support or restraint. Horses can be moved on glides created from a sheet of plywood, 2 clevis' and a tow strap or a commercial glide may be used. Do you have a tractor, skid steer or vehicle to tow them or lift them with if need be? Will it start? If not, plug it in or contact neighbors or friends that may be close by with the same equipment that will start.
If they are not obviously compromised and are close to good footing (on the edge of an icy patch), you may be able to roll them over onto the better footing and allow them to try to stand.
I hope this helps keep your equids safe this early Spring. Please don't forget to call the office for help!