Caring for your horse in the winter
- Provide warm water (45° to 65° F).
- Feed additional hay during extreme cold.
- Make sure there is access to shelter.
- Perform regular hoof care.
- Assess your horse’s body condition regularly.
- Evaluate your facility’s stability and ventilation.
Winterizing your horse
- Horses acclimated to cold temperatures often prefer and are better off outdoors.
- The Minnesota Pet and Companion Animal Welfare Act gives several minimal care standards for food, water, shelter, space, cleanliness, exercise and hoof care. Some of these standards become more important in the winter.
- Keep in mind that a horse requiring special care during summer months will need that care continued throughout the winter months.
- To ease the transition into winter, deworm your horses based on fecal analysis and make sure they are in good body condition.
Your horse needs more water in the winter
The goal should always be to maximize the amount your horse drinks to help prevent dehydration and colic. Most 1,000-pound adult horses need at least 10 to 12 gallons of water daily.
During the summer months, lush pastures contain 60 to 80 percent moisture and can contribute to your horse’s water requirement. In contrast, dried winter feedstuffs such as grain and hay contain less than 15 percent moisture. Thus, your horse will require more water in the winter.
If your horse doesn’t drink enough water during cold weather they may eat less and be more prone to impaction colic. Even if you offer quality feed, horses will consume less if not drinking enough water. If horses eat less feed, they might not have enough energy to tolerate the cold.
Water intake maintains a horse’s fecal moisture level. If fecal material becomes too dry, intestinal blockage or impaction may occur. A horse won’t develop an impaction in one day, but can over several days to several weeks of poor water intake.
- Keep your horse’s water between 45° to 65° F. Research has shown that ponies increased their water intake by approximately 40 percent each day when water temperatures were above freezing during cold weather.
- Increase your horse’s salt intake. Adult horses should consume one to two ounces of salt daily.
- Regularly clean your horse’s waterer.
- Always provide clean, fresh water regardless of temperature.
- When using tank heaters, check for worn wires or damage, and check the water for electrical sensations or shocks.
A few studies show that horses acclimated to winter weather can meet their water requirements from snow. But serious health risks may arise with snow intake due to
- Length of adjustment period as horses learn to ingest snow.
- Actual water content of snow.
- Total water intake.
These factors put domestic horses at risk for:
- Gastrointestinal tract complications.
- Reduced feed intake.
Adjust your horse's feed in the winter
Lower critical temperature is the temperature below which a horse needs additional energy to maintain body warmth. The lower critical temperature estimate for horses is 41° F with a summer coat and 18° F with a winter coat.
Factors affecting lower critical temperature
Individual factors that can affect a horse’s lower critical temperature include hair length and body size.
A horse with short hair exposed to cold, wet weather will have a higher lower critical temperature than that of a cold-weather-acclimated horse with a thick hair coat and fat stores.
Smaller animals have a greater surface area relative to body weight and can lose heat more rapidly than a larger animal. A weanling may reach their lower critical temperature before a mature horse. Cold weather can slow growth because calories go from weight gain to temperature maintenance. To lessen a growth slump during cold weather, you should feed additional calories to young horses.
Lower critical temperature and energy needs
As temperatures decrease during winter, the horse needs additional dietary energy to maintain its body temperature and condition. For every degree below 18° F the horse requires an additional one percent energy in their diet.
The best source of additional dietary energy during the cold winter months is forage.
Some believe that feeding more grain will keep a horse warmer. But digestion, absorption, and utilization of grain doesn’t produce as much heat as the microbial fermentation of forage. More forage increases microbial fermentation and keeps the horse warm.
If a 1000-pound idle horse needs 16 pounds of good-quality hay daily when the temperature is 18° F, its requirement may increase by approximately 2 to 2.5 pounds to 18 to 18.5 pounds if the temperature drops to 0° F. The increased dietary energy requirement would be even greater if the horse doesn’t have access to shelter.
During winter months, heavy hair coats can often hide weight loss. We recommend regular body condition scoring to gauge weight and assess horse health.
If your horse starts to lose body condition, increase its feed. If a horse starts gaining excessive body condition, reduce the feed.
Sorting horses by age, body condition, and nutrient requirements makes it easier to feed groups of horses appropriately.
Most data suggests that other nutrient requirement don’t change during cold weather. But consider feeding loose salt instead of block salt, as horses may not want to lick cold salt blocks during winter months.
Providing shelter for your horse
Horses should have access to shelter from wind, sleet and storms. Free access to a stable or an open-sided shed works well, as do trees if a building is not available. In the absence of wind and moisture, horses tolerate temperatures at or slightly below 0° F.
If horses have access to a shelter, they can tolerate temperatures as low as -40° F. But horses are most comfortable at temperatures between 18° and 59° F, depending on their hair coat.
A 240-square-foot run-in or open-front shed (i.e. 12 x 20 feet) is ideal for two horses. You should add 60 square feet (i.e. an additional 10 x 6 feet) for each additional horse. These sizes are ideal only if the horses housed together get along.
Shelter access is very important in certain weather conditions. Researchers examined daytime shelter-seeking behavior in domestic horses housed outdoors. They studied the relationship of temperature, precipitation, and wind speed with shelter-seeking behavior.
Shelter usage ranged from a low of less than 10 percent in mild weather conditions, to a high of 62 percent when snowing and wind speed were greater than 11 miles per hour. More horses used shelters in breezy conditions during snow or rain.
A horse will continue to develop a natural winter coat until December 22 (winter solstice), as the days become shorter. Horses begin to lose their winter coat (and start forming their summer coat) as the days become longer (starting on December 23). Don’t blanket before December 22 or you will decrease your horse's natural winter coat.
The hair coat insulates the horse by trapping and warming air. Wet or muddy hair can reduce its insulating value and increase heat loss. It is important to keep the horse dry and sheltered from moisture. As little as 0.1 inch of rain can cause cold stress by matting the hair and reducing its insulating value. As expected, a horse with a thicker hair coat can retain more heat.
Research analyzed the benefits of blanketing a horse to reduce the effects of cold weather. Most horse owners blanket their horse because of personal beliefs.
Blanketing a horse is necessary to reduce the effects of cold or inclement weather when:
No shelter is available during turnout periods and the temperatures or wind chill drop below 5° F.
- There is a chance the horse will become wet (e.g. rain, ice, and/or freezing rain -- usually not a problem with snow).
- The horse has had its winter coat clipped.
- The horse is very young or very old.
- The horse isn’t acclimated to the cold.
- The horse has a body condition score of three or less.
- Make sure the blanket fits. Poorly fitted blankets can cause sores and rub marks along the straps.
- Remove the blanket daily, inspect it for damage, and reposition it.
- Make sure the blanket stays dry.
- Don’t put a blanket on a wet horse. Wait until the horse is dry before blanketing.
Exercise shouldn’t stop during the winter months.
During extreme winter weather, owners often confine their horses. Confinement and limited exercise can lead to lower leg swelling (stocking up).
Provide your horse with turnout or exercise as often as possible. Take caution when riding in deep, heavy or wet snow to prevent tendon injuries. These conditions are hard work for an unfit horse. Avoid icy areas for both you and your horse’s safety.
One of the big challenges with winter riding is cooling down a horse with a winter coat. Leaving a hot, wet horse standing in a cold barn can lead to illness.
Use a trace clip on regularly exercised horses. To trace clip, clip your horse’s coat to about an 1/8 inch in length in these regions:
- From the underside of the neck and abdomen to the sides of the horse.
- From the elbow to about a quarter of the way up the body.
Other types of clipping patterns work as well.
Feed clipped horses to meet their higher energy needs. Clipped hair won’t grow back rapidly in the winter. If you clip your horse, use appropriate shelter and blankets throughout the winter and into the early spring months.
Horse hooves generally grow slower in the winter. But trimming should still occur every six to 12 weeks.
Horse hooves are prone to "ice or snow balls" during the winter. These balls of packed ice or snow make it hard for the horse to walk, increases the chance of slipping and falling, and may put stress tendons or joints. Pick your horse’s hooves daily, especially after a heavy snow.
Horses have better traction on snow and ice when left barefoot compared to being shod. If your horse requires shoes, take care to prevent slipping and snow from packing in the hoof. Snow pads and studs attached to shoes can help offset these problems.
Sole bruising can also be a problem in the winter, especially when working on uneven or frozen ground.
Winter paddock and facilities upkeep
Icy paddocks cause slips and falls that can lead to serious injury. The best solution is to remove the horse from the paddock until the ice melts, but few horse owners have that option.
Sand and salt
Use sand to increase traction on ice. Don’t feed horses near spread sand as the may accidentally eat it.
Straight salt can speed the melting of the ice if temperatures aren’t too cold. No research documents the effect of salt on horse hooves, but to be safe, use pure salt in moderation. If using pure salt to melt ice, make sure your horse has an alternative source of salt to reduce eating off the ground.
Don’t use a mixture of sand and salt in horse paddocks. Horses may accidentally eat sand via their interest in the salt.
Spreading a thin layer of wood ash or fresh manure can help. Other options like shavings, hay, and straw tend to slide over ice and provide little traction. Small rocks can provide traction, but can become lodged in the hooves or accidentally eaten.
Reduce future water and ice problems
- Improve the paddock’s grade.
- Install gutters on the barn.
- Reduce the amount of manure in the paddock.
During heavy snowfalls, remove snow from paddocks to allow horses easy access to feed, water, and shelter. Avoid piling snow in low areas, drainage ways, septic tank areas, wellheads, and other drinking sources. Snow with manure, bedding, and soil can pollute streams and wetlands. Moving snow is expensive, so keep distances and travel time to a minimum. Removing snow helps the paddock drain and dry faster in the spring.
Building strength and stability
Barns and shelters should have truss certificates of at least 30 pounds per square foot of snow load. Most buildings fail at the joints. If concerns arise about a barn structure under a snow load, examine the trusses and joints to see if there is movement, cracking, or dry rot.
In enclosed barns, snow blowing into attics and wall spaces can melt and cause wet conditions suitable for mold and rotting. Wood will generally give warning sounds before complete failure.
Ventilation helps control temperature and humidity levels and improve air quality. Poor ventilation can affect a horse's respiratory health. Ceiling fans can help with air exchange. You should remove wet bedding and manure daily from barns.
Reviewed in 2018