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The winter months bring with them cold, wet and mud. Not the ideal conditions for trying 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 ‘the 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, listed below are some essential considerations for yard facilities and management to help yards cope better in the conditions that winter weather can bring. From weatherproof facilities to forward planning by yard owners… I'm sure this will give you all something to think about when viewing a new yard 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 smaller budgets or simpler packages, you should consider what you deem the most important aspects of winter management to 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 confident 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 that the horses can get out and stretch their legs. A yard that provides 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 be a great addition but it’s important to find out where you stand with this and what the responsibilities and costs 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 have 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 going to be ideal. It's also worth noting that reduced turnout means more time in the stable pooing and peeing, leaving you with a more diffcult and time consuming mucking out regime, and potentially higher costs for bedding and hay.

Some yards now offer all-weather turnout options, whether in the form of a specific field or a specially constructed hardstanding or sand paddock, simply to allow the horses to stretch their legs. If turnout is not possible, being able to put the horse somewhere like this for a short while – to get them out and to enable you to do your yard jobs – is great and makes mucking out so much easier when you're not having to work around a horse that’s penned into its stable with a wheelbarrow! It’s worth checking if there are any all-weather turnout provisions like this offered by the yard and find out what restrictions are in place, such as time limits or whether they can be turned out with company.

Having access to any form of turnout – even if it's limited – is incredibly beneficial to a horse's mental wellbeing, not just in terms of grazing but for ‘free time’ such as playing and socialising in the paddocks with other horses. It has been proven that for certain horses, being cooped up long-term in their stables over the winter months can result in vices and behavioural problems developing 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, a hose? While playing with water in the summer months can be enjoyable, trudging sloshing buckets of water to paddocks in the winter is less fun, and will become even more difficult 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 for when supplies to the yard become frozen.

Mud

As with 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 for longer. It also means that in the event of heavy rain, standing water and horses having to stand in puddles is much less likely.

Gateways can be difficult and dangerous areas in the winter months. Bringing horses in while the rain is hammering, with deep mud in the gateway, wind blowing the gate shut and other horses jostling to be taken in is not a fun experience. It is important to consider the process of bringing your horse in from the field, taking into account whether you feel it will be safe. Ideally, mud-reducing measures should be used in gateways – such as hardcore or plastic grids – and gates should be well-maintained to aid a quick exit. It's also sensible to put in place a simple bringing in regime, to ensure horses are not crowded at gateways of an evening.

Don't just take into consideration the mud in the field, but the mud on the yard in general. Parking, access to fields and the route to the muckheap can all be affected, and trawling through mud whilst carrying out any job on the yard can make it much longer and messier process. When it comes to parking, a hardstanding, designated car park or road parking is ideal – parking on muddy areas or grass verges, where you risk getting stuck, is not!

You need to think about 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. Yards these days often restrict this due to high water bills and making the yard area even wetter, which can be a danger in icy conditions. Similarly, consider the management of wet rugs. Do you have somewhere suitable to hang wet and muddy rugs that is easy to access? It's worth checking this, as there's nothing worse than wrestling a wet and heavy rug back on in the morning!

Stabling

Having a stable is ideal for winter horse management – for obvious reasons. It keeps them clean, warm and dry. However, this is not always the case if it is draughty, leaking and facing the open fields, blowing a gale straight in the door! Give a prospective stable a good check over. Look at the condition of the roof, how exposed it is and assess the likelihood of any water infiltration in the event of flooding or heavy rain – either from the roof or the floor – that could ruin the bed and make it more costly, in both time and money, to maintain. If your horse has 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 the paddocks, water supply, muck heap, feed and tack rooms, and the arena? All worth considering if you have to go these distances in the rain or cold and snow. During 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 have to spend 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.

Grooming

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 without having to deal 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 issues like mud-fever at bay, as well as making it easier to see 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 little they will appreciate being plastered in mud whilst trying to locate a horse's hoof between muddy feet and sopping wet feathers!

Exercise Facilities

An arena is fantastic in the winter – an indoor arena is even better, allowing you to ride in all weathers. With limited daylight hours, floodlights or an indoor school can allow riding even after dark. However, it is worth checking the routine of other liveries too, as an arena of any sort is great, but not when there are five other 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 yard’s 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 but you want to ensure they get a good work out, is to do a lunging session as an alternative. Many yards these days restrict lunging in certain areas to maintain the arena surface, so this 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.

Hacking

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 the winter months, with the added possibility of fog and rain. It’s worth considering a yard's 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 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 when it's very wet, to preserve them for the following year.

Yard Management and Planning

During a viewing, it is definitely worth asking 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 steps prior to winter 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 the horses in the same paddocks year-round and hopes for good weather. Or a yard that plans in advance to have enough forage in stock to be able to provide ad-lib hay in the fields at a reasonable cost, and to forewarn liveries if this is a cost they are likely to incur over winter, is much better than one that springs it on them when the grass runs dry.

Little measures – such as flood prevention, providing a backup generator for electricity 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 well in winter, whatever the conditions.

Extreme Weather and Yard Cover

If snow, floods, gales or anything else affects your ability to get to the yard, 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 ensures that there is a person there to take charge and make decisions with regards to the care of animals, even if only to chuck hay in until the owners can get there, or to take the decision to put all horses on full livery for 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 whether 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. They can be used to advise of any problems or access issues and to ensure everyone receives important information, so it’s worth asking the yard if they have anything like this in place.

Forage and Bedding

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 must purchase from the yard, you will always be tied in to what they want to charge. If their stocks run low, they change supplier, or prices are increased, this cost is likely to be passed on to you. Question this when you view a yard. Some yards will still allow liveries to supply their own forage and bedding. If this is the case, you need to make sure you have adequate storage to stockpile for the winter, and not have to get it delivered or drive to 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, so that they are ready to be put in throughout the week. This will save you valuable time and also ensures that they are ready to go in the event that your 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 these can accommodate your needs.

Access

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, so you will need both access to the yard and light to be able to see what you are doing!

Whilst you can never guarantee full-time access to any yard due to winter conditions 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 is accessible in any weather – is the track or road to the yard liable to flooding? Do you have to drive on muddy tracks or gateways to park or get into the yard? If it snows, are the local roads cleared or it is a small lane which is hard to access and may even be closed due to snow, floods or ice? They 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 – worst case scenario, there may be no one able to access the yard and take care of the horses.

Utilities

There are still some yards that are not on mains electricity, that either do not have an electric supply or run off a generator. This is an important consideration for winter horse management, as whilst the yard may be 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 there will be no hot water for cups of tea, no lights for veterinary management, and it can cause safety issues as there are 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 it causes a much bigger problem if there is a medical or veterinary emergency, or an issue whilst out hacking and suchlike. Not only can you not be contacted when you are at the yard, but it will be more difficult for you to contact a vet or the emergency services in the event of an accident. It also makes it much harder 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 list but should hopefully give you some extra things to think about next time you view a potential yard, with a view to it being your horse's 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 come winter. Don’t shy away from asking yard owners any questions you might have 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 are met by what the yard has on offer.

Cheryl Johns - Livery List
Horsemart Brand Ambassador
Published on 2018-12-04