October 2015 - The Gallop: Ready for Rain?

Drainage and due diligence are best defense against “Godzilla El Niño.”

by Kim F. Miller

With the horrible fires of summer and early fall hopefully behind us, it’s time to face Mother Nature’s next likely assault. All indicators point to what the Los Angeles Times described as a “Godzilla El Niño” arriving in late fall or early winter.



Rain would be welcome after four years of drought, but thirsty landscapes will make massive rainstorms even harder to handle. Floods and mudslides are likely.

Predictions are the coming storm could be as bad as the 1997 El Niño. There is a possible silver lining in that that year’s El Niño doubled the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, a key to recovering from our current drought and surviving another.

Even though some parts of California may still be facing freakishly hot weather, now is the time to get ready for rain.

Eating & Exercise

For those without indoor arenas, rain and riding are usually mutually exclusive. So, when horses exercise less, they should eat less, right?

Yes and no, says Clair Thunes, PhD, of Summit Equine Nutrition in Sacramento. “On paper, it seems like you should cut calories, but if it’s cold, you may not want to cut calories as much as you would think because they may need them for warmth.

”It may be more about changing where those calories come from,” she continues. “For example, emphasizing forage over grain.”

Dr. Thunes is mostly known as an equine nutrition expert, but she’s also a rider raised in England, so she’s knows a thing or two about horsekeeping in wet weather.

She always advises owners to perform body conditioning scores regularly on their horses. That’s especially critical during periods of reduced activity. “It’s a matter of being astute and keeping an eye on your horse so you can make informed decisions,” she explains.

Daily evaluations should include removing blankets to eyeball weight and check for skin conditions that can crop up in damp conditions, even under blankets. Pick up the hooves and check for thrush (It’s stinky and makes for a mushy frog!) and hoof wall deterioration that can result from standing in mud and puddles.

Find some way to exercise your horse, no matter the weather. “Be creative,” Dr. Thunes urges. “Where I grew up, we used the roads a lot when the weather was bad.” Walking your horse, anywhere safe, is much better than nothing, even if just up and down the barn aisle, but outside in fresh air is best. Motion is great for stimulating the flow of blood and for aiding digestion.

“We undervalue walking as part of our conditioning programs,” she observes. “It’s really important for soft tissue maintenance and bone density and it’s a great way to keep a low level base of fitness on your horse so that his tissues are healthy when you can return him to work.”

A sudden reduction of activity can also trigger impaction colic, and walking is a great preventative measure. “When horses are on lock-down, not exercising, that’s when we see an increase in colic risk.”

Hydration is just as important in winter as in summer. Cold weather and cold water can be deterrents to drinking enough, especially in areas where temperatures are so low that water sources ice over or freeze.

Many horses have access to salt blocks but don’t use them. If that’s the case, Dr. Thunes recommends building up to a tablespoon of salt in their food, per 500 pounds, to trigger thirst, another year-round recommendation.

What goes in must come out, of course, so think about ventilation before closing every window and door in pursuit of warmth. Beyond the bad odor, ammonia build-up from urine can contribute to respiratory conditions for horses living in unventilated spaces.

Whenever the weather allows, open doors and windows, or maintain at least a little inlet for fresh air to help everybody breathe easier. This is especially true for horses on diets high in alfalfa hay. “They need to get rid of that excess nitrogen in alfalfa, and it comes out in their urine.”

Extra mucking and bedding products that neutralize ammonia can help. When possible, muck and sweep barn aisles when your horse is outside to reduce the dust particles that can invade and irritate the lungs, his and yours!

Stable Prep

In many years of owning horses in Orange County and the San Juan Capistrano tack and feed store, American Horse Products, Diane and Jim Carter have seen it all, weather-wise. Diane hasn’t yet detected strong sales patterns that would suggest customers are overly concerned about El Niño, but she has good tips for those who want to be ready.

Effective drainage around stables, paddocks and arenas is a must. Properly placed berms, trenches and pipes should do the most critical job of keeping the water out in the first place.

For their own horses, the Carters favor an approximately 10-inch layer of #5 gravel in their corrals. It’s smaller than pea gravel, and it kept their horses out of the mud throughout the last season of heavy rains. “We were worried about the pebbles getting into hooves and working their way into white line issues, but we checked our horses regularly and we never had any problems with that.”

At the store, recently honored as a “Best Business” by the San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce, Diane advises customers to stock up on products that can help repel moisture from hooves.

“Anything you can get that will help block out moisture, yet still allow the hoof to breathe is good,” she says.

Tuff Stuff is a favorite recommendation in that category. “Be careful not to do something that would soften the hoof too much, because that increases the risk of your horse pulling a shoe.”

Lisa Grim, DVM, of Equitage in San Diego, relays that hoof problems are typically a veterinarian’s first concern when wet weather arrives. She concurs that effective paddock drainage is the best way to prevent problems.

Making her rounds in the sweltering head of mid-September, Dr. Grim has been advising clients to evaluate the rain handling characteristics of their horse keeping spaces. She’d seen one barn where the grading was great for drainage, but the end of the paddock had a wooden barricade at the base. It was meant to keep bedding in, but would likely have trapped water in, too, creating the perfect recipe for rotting hooves.

As owner of Goldspirit Farm in the Los Angeles area’s Lake View Terrace, trainer Susan Friend LeTourneur is well versed in what water does at her facility, including stabling and arenas. Her ring stays remarkable rideable thanks to berms and ditches that divert flows that have swelled to “white water raftable conditions” in the past.

When rain is predicted, they flip their arena drag to its upside-down position, (tynes pointing up) so it packs down, rather than fluffs up, the surface. “The more room there is for air, the more room there is for water, too.” That maintenance, plus a sandy surface, enable the ring to be ready shortly after most rains.

Pre-rain paddock maintenance at Goldspirit includes moving shavings to the end that gets the least rain, and adding cat litter to the area that gets the most. Susan recommends a clay-based cat litter, the kind that doesn’t clump, which she finds reasonably priced at $8 to $10 a bag.

Blankets or Au Naturel?

Blankets are big sellers come winter, but for those who don’t show, Diane at American Horse Products actually recommends going without. “The best way to keep your horse warm is to let their coat grow out.” Avoid over grooming or even go without. Left to their own devices, horses’ coats will often accumulate enough natural oils to repel water nicely.

Many of American Horse Products’ customers do compete or, for other reasons, keep their horses clipped, which means blankets are critical.

“Cooler is always better,” she advises for those evaluating blanket weights and characteristics. Most manufacturers’ recommendations about when to blanket suggest doing so when the temperature falls below 45 degrees, which doesn’t happen often in many parts of California. “It’s really important not to overheat your horse.” A thinner blanket is usually better than bulky, she continues. And a thin sheet under the winter blanket is a good way to help the horse adjust his body temperature when the outer blanket is removed.

As a self-described “safety freak,” Diane says, “Don’t wait until the storm to get your horse’s blanket or to check that his existing blanket is in good shape.” A snug fit that’s not too tight is important, and there need to be gussets or ample room through the shoulders for the horse to stretch his front legs out when getting up from lying down.

“We’ve heard that El Nino is coming before,” Diane concludes. “I think a lot of people don’t take it seriously, but that ounce of prevention is always worthwhile.”


Hennecke body condition score instructions, and a great disaster preparedness checklist: www.summit-equine.com.

The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 949-644-2165.