Winter Care for Your Horse

White horse in the winter snow

It comes around every year: WINTER.

While you may want to bundle up your horses and tuck them away in a warm barn until the tundra subsides and the sun comes back out, these tips can help you keep your horses content and healthy during the winter months.

Pre-Season Inspection

Especially for senior horses, a wellness examination before the winter weather hits can be beneficial. A veterinarian can inspect your horse and determine if he is at a good weight and is in adequate physical condition to handle the cold. Recommendations can be made at this time to help your horse prepare for the cold weather ahead.

Some health conditions can be aggravated by the cold temperatures:

  • Respiratory Disease: Very cold air can irritate lung tissue when inhaled deeply.
  • Poor Mobility: Frozen ground may make it difficult for horses with arthritis, chronic laminitis, or neurologic issues to get around safely. Pay attention to the terrain and how it is affecting the horses.
  • Cataracts/Uveitis: Glare from the snow can make it difficult for horses with cataracts or uveitis to see. Consider using a fly mask during the day, which can act like sunglasses.
  • Arthritis: The cold can make horses with arthritis stiff. While anti-inflammatory medications can help, be sure to keep your horse active to prevent stiffening up.

Winter Feeding

A horse’s energy needs will increase with declining temperatures as horses require more energy to maintain their core body temperature. Generally, horses require anywhere from less than 2 percent to up to 3 percent of their body weight in feed per day for maintenance during mild temperatures.

The lower critical temperature (the temperature level at which a horse needs additional energy to maintain body warmth) is approximately 41 degrees Fahrenheit with a summer or show coat and 18 degrees Fahrenheit with a winter coat. Individual characteristics of horses will affect the lower critical temperature (i.e., a thin horse with a short hair coat exposed to wet, cold weather versus a horse with a thick coat and fat stores who is used to the weather).

Smaller animals tend to lose body heat more rapidly due to having a greater surface area relative to body weight. Cold weather can also slow growth, as calories that are used for weight gain are diverted to maintain body temperature.

A general rule of thumb for winter feeding is that energy needs for maintenance increase about 1 percent per degree below 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Extra energy is best provided as forage, such as hay. More heat is produced as a by-product of microbial fermentation of forage than is produced from digestion and utilization of concentrated feeds such as grain.

Regular body condition scoring is recommended during the winter months, as heavy winter hair coats may obscure weight loss. If a horse appears to be losing weight, an increase in feed is recommended. If a horse gains excessive weight, the ration should be reduced appropriately.

Water Requirements

While pastures typically contain 60 percent to 80 percent moisture, hay and grain only contain around 15 percent moisture or less. With decreased water consumption, horses can develop problems such as decreased feed intake and impaction colic. If less feed is consumed, the horse may not have enough energy intake to tolerate the cold. If fecal material becomes too dry due to lack of water intake, the horse may develop an impaction of firm fecal material in the colon, causing abdominal discomfort.

Generally, an adult horse weighing 1000 pounds requires a minimum of 10 to 12 gallons of water a day. The temperature of the water should be maintained at 45 degrees to 65 degrees Fahrenheit to maximize the horse’s water intake.

Increasing salt consumption will also stimulate horses to drink more. Typically, an adult horse should consume approximately 1 to 2 ounces of salt daily. Loose salt may be better tolerated than salt blocks, as horses may not want to lick cold salt blocks during the winter.

Water troughs and buckets should be cleaned regularly and filled with fresh water, regardless of the temperature. If using a water heating device, inspect for wire damage and check the water for electrical shocks. Worn wires or other damage can cause electrocution or fire hazards, and electrical shocks in the water will discourage horses from drinking.

Shelter

Shelter from wind, sleet, rain, and storms should be accessible to horses in the winter. A run-in shed or open stable are the best options, but trees can act as shelter if a building is unavailable.

While the most comfortable temperatures (depending on hair coat) are around 18 degrees to 59 degrees Fahrenheit, horses will tolerate temperatures as low as 0 degrees Fahrenheit without wind and/or moisture, and can tolerate temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit with access to shelter. When the weather is snowy or the wind speed is greater than 11 mph, horses tend to seek shelter 62 percent of the time, as opposed to around 10 percent of the time in mild conditions.

Providing adequate shelter for your horses will help keep them comfortable and happy during the cold winter months.

Blanketing

Most horses are blanketed in the winter due to the personal principles of the owner. The horse’s winter hair coat naturally acts as insulation by trapping air next to the body and allowing it to warm. If the hair is wet, matted, or covered in mud, the insulating capabilities are reduced. This is why it is important to keep horses as dry as possible during the cold weather.

There are some instances when blanketing a horse becomes necessary, including the following:

  • No shelter is available during turnout, and the temperatures and/or wind chill are below 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • There is a chance the horse will become wet (due to rain, sleet, ice, etc.).
  • The horse has been body clipped.
  • The horse is very young or very old.
  • The horse has not been acclimated to the cold climate (e.g., horses from warmer climates, such as from the South).
  • The horse has a Body Condition Score of 3 or less.

If a horse is to be blanketed, it is important that the fit is correct. Improperly fitted blankets can cause hair loss from rubbing or sores. If the horse is consistently blanketed, the blanket should be removed daily in order to inspect the horse for any rubs, hair loss, or sores, then positioned correctly when put back on. The blanket should be dry, and the horse itself should be dry when a blanket is applied.

Exercise

Exercise shouldn't come to a grinding halt in the winter months. Confinement can cause lower leg edema (stocking up) and an anxious animal. Turn out or light exercise should occur as often as possible. Caution should be taken in deep snow, as this could cause tendon injuries or other musculoskeletal problems. Icy areas should be avoided for the safety of both the horse and rider.

Hoof Care

Horses should have their hooves trimmed regularly every 6 to 12 weeks. This interval is variable and depends on the individual hoof growth of the horse.

The hooves should be picked out frequently, as horses have a tendency to compact ice and snow in their hooves. This makes it difficult to walk, increases stress on tendons and joints, and can increase a horse’s chance of slipping and falling.

While being barefoot provides the best traction, shod horses can benefit from snow pads or studs that improve traction and decrease snow compaction under the hoof. Be aware that frozen ground can also cause hoof bruising and can lead to lameness.

Paddock and Facilities Management

Turn out in icy conditions is a recipe for disaster. A horse slipping and falling on the ice can cause catastrophic injury.

If the paddock area is icy, the best option is to remove the horse until the ice melts. Sand can also be used to help increase traction, or salt can be used to help melt the ice. Straw, shavings, and hay tend to slide around on ice and do not provide increased traction. Installing rain gutters on the barn and/or improving drainage of water from the paddock will help to prevent icy conditions from occurring.

Ventilation in barns is another important concern in the winter. Poor ventilation can lead to a build up of ammonia from urine and particulate debris that can affect the respiratory health of horses. Horses are prone to developing upper respiratory infections or recurrent airway obstruction (heaves) if left in poorly ventilated shelters. Ceiling fans can help to circulate fresh air, and stalls should be cleaned daily.

In Summary: Mistakes to Avoid

  1. Do not allow drinking water to freeze over! Snow and ice are not a substitute for clean, unfrozen drinking water.
  2. Don’t underfeed! Make sure you are feeding your horse appropriately for the winter months.
  3. Don’t halt all exercise! Allow horses to exercise, either through riding, longeing, or turnout.
  4. Do not override an out-of-shape or unfit horse. They are more prone to musculoskeletal injury.
  5. Don’t sequester horses indoors for the entire season! Poor ventilation and a lack of fresh air can cause respiratory problems.
  6. Do not over-blanket your horse! This can cause the horse to overheat and dehydrate. If you are concerned about your horse’s comfort, contact your veterinarian.
  7. Do not forgo hoof care during the winter! A horse’s hooves must be maintained throughout the year, regardless of the season.
  8. Don’t forget regular grooming! Horses should still be groomed regularly through the winter. This gives you a chance to evaluate your horse’s body condition and hair coat, and it can alert you to injuries, illness, or other problems much more quickly. Early detection allows for early treatment!
  9. Don’t forget about your horse during the winter! Keep up on daily chores to keep your horse happy and healthy. Visual inspection at the very least can alert you to many problems before they become overtly serious.
  10. Don’t forget about your own health! If you're not healthy, it's more difficult to care for your horse. Stay healthy, stay warm, and stay safe because your horse is counting on you!

Have questions about caring for your horses this winter? Contact our trusty Badger Equine team today!