How to Care for Your Horse in the Winter

How to Care for Your Horse in the Winter

Get advice on winter feeding, drinking, hoof, and coat care

Winter is coming and your horse is relying on you to take good care of them during the cool months. It’s important to remember that even a slight drop in temperature and humidity impacts your horse.

Attention to winter horse care is important regardless of the amount of snowy, rainy, and sub-zero days you experience. Remember your horse should not shiver, lose weight, or stop exercising in the cold months.

Because horses, like all animals, are experts at hiding signs of discomfort, it’s important you as a horse owner know the essentials to winter horse care and are in-tune with subtle changes in your horse’s behavior, coat, weight, and mood.

Read on to make sure you know the 7 essentials to winter horse care. As always, contact us with any questions you have about horse health and care.

The 7 Essentials to Winter Horse Care

Focusing on the essentials to winter horse care and getting these right goes a long way in keeping your horse healthy, active, happy, and safe. Remember if you have questions about your horse’s skin, coat, hooves, or eating and drinking – please contact your veterinarian.

Follow these 7 essentials to winter horse care:

1. Proper Winter Shelter

Regardless of how cold your winter is, your horse needs access to shelter. Safe, sturdy shelter helps your horse stay warm and protected from snow, rain, sleet, wind, and damp.

A stable or open-sided shed is ideal for keeping your horse protected from the weather. Horses who have access to shelter can tolerate temperatures as low as -40F. However, horses are most comfortable in temperatures between 15 and 59F.

Horses intuitively use shelter when the weather is at its worst. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found the following when studying the relationship between temperature, precipitation, wind speed and shelter-seeking behavior: “Shelter usage ranged from a low of less than 10% in mild weather conditions, to a high of 62% when snowing and wind speed were greater than 11 miles per hour. More horses used shelters in breezy conditions during snow or rain.”

2. Pay Attention to Calories

During the winter, it’s vital you pay close attention to changes in your horse’s weight. If your horse has a heavy winter coat, it’s easy to miss changes in your horse’s condition.

Remember horses struggle to stay warm in cooler weather and this translates to needing more calories to maintain weight. Horses with a summer or clipped coat struggle to stay warm when the temperature is 41F or lower. Horses with a thick or winter coat struggle to stay warm when the temperature is 18F or lower. Pay attention to fluctuations in the weather forecast and how these impact your horse’s eating habits.

As the weather changes, slowly transition your horse from green grass to forage. Remember it takes about two weeks for your horse to get used to the increase in forage.

If you know a winter storm is coming or you’re about to enter an extended cold period, start feeding your horse extra forage in the 24 hours leading up to this. At all times, try to follow a regular feeding schedule to prevent digestion problems.

3. Keep Your Horse Drinking

Plain and simple – your horse needs more water in the winter. You must focus on keeping your horse drinking in order to prevent dehydration and colic.

Per day, your horse needs to drink at least 5 liters of water for every 100kg of body weight. This is the minimum amount. Remember your horse needs more water on days you ride and exercise your horse. Yes – horses sweat in the winter!

If you’re struggling to get your horse to drink in the winter, know you’re not alone. To keep your horse drinking, try the following:

  • Horses won’t drink cold water. Give your horse water that ranges between 45F and 65F. If you have a senior horse or a very reluctant drinker, try increasing the water temperature to a maximum of 90F.
  • Increase the amount of salt you feed your horse. Salt stimulates the thirst response and encourages drinking. Your adult horse should eat 1 to 2 ounces of salt daily.
  • Make sure your horse’s water is always clean and fresh.

Please understand that snow and ice do not provide enough water for your horse. In fact, horses who eat snow are at risk of colic, lack of appetite, and digestion problems.

If your horse is losing weight or there is a change in their condition, pay close attention to water consumption. If your horse does not drink enough, they will not eat enough and will not have enough available calories to stay warm.

4. Exercise is Still a Must

Like you, your horse needs to move. The winter weather is not a reason to limit exercise or to stop riding. Doing so can result in health conditions such as lower leg swelling.

Use your judgement based on the weather conditions. Wet, heavy snow or icy conditions do increase injury risk for some horses. The goal is to safely give your horse daily exercise.

After exercising or riding you horse, it’s important your horse cools down properly. Your horse does sweat during winter riding and exercising, so you must ensure your horse is completely dry before returning to the barn. Remember these cooling tips:

  1. At the end of your ride, walk your horse for 15 minutes to help the muscles cool.
  2. Do not remove the saddle immediately, doing so allows cold air to penetrate the back muscles and cause cramping.
  3. Use a cooler to wick moisture from your horse’s coat. Walk your horse with the cooler and saddle and then after a few minutes, remove the saddle and continue walking.
  4. Rub your horse with a towel.
  5. Pay attention to how long it takes for your horse to return to their normal temperature. If it takes longer than an hour, this can be a sign of a serious health condition and you must contact your veterinarian.

5. Keep Hooves Healthy

While horse hooves grow more slowly in the winter, they still require regular attention and trimming. Hooves should be trimmed every 6 to 12 weeks.

Always check your horse’s hooves for accumulation of balls of ice or snow. Any buildup of snow or ice makes it difficult for your horse to walk properly, causing balance issues and ultimately damaging tendons or causing your horse to slip and fall.

If your horse wears shoes, you might want your farrier to insert a special pad to help limit the accumulation of ice and snow. Work with your farrier to determine what is best for your horse based on your winter environment and your horse’s health and needs.

6. Beware of Skin and Coat Issues

In the winter, horses are prone to 5 common skin issues:

  1. Dandruff
  2. Ringworm
  3. Fungal infections
  4. Scratches or abrasions
  5. Lice

To prevent these winter issues, you need to spend extra time and attention on skin and coat care. Maintain a regular bathing schedule and use warm water and damp sponge. If your horse has a long coat, trim it regularly to help prevent matting – but remember your horse needs their coat to stay warm. Keep up your regular grooming and brushing – your horse enjoys this routine and it helps keep their skin healthy.

7. Know When to Blanket

During the short winter days of November and December, your horse naturally grows their coat, but this growth stops when the days become longer. This is why in general, you want to wait until after the winter solstice (December 21, 2020) to blanket.

Research on blanketing reveals horse blanketing is most necessary in the following conditions:

  • Shelter is not available during turnouts where the temperature or wind chill is below 5F.
  • There is a chance your horse will become wet.
  • The winter coat is clipped.
  • Your horse is very young or very old.
  • Your horse is not used to the cold.
  • Your horse has a body condition of three or less.

Remember these 4 winter blanketing tips:

  1. Keep the blanket dry.
  2. Inspect and remove the blanket daily.
  3. Make sure the blanket fits properly and is not rubbing or chafing.
  4. Only blanket a dry horse.

Winter horse care comes down to paying attention to detail. How much is your horse drinking? Is the coat completely dry? Is the paddock muddy or icy, putting your horse at risk of slips and falls? How does the blanket fit?

Do not be shy about asking your trainer, farrier, or veterinarian your winter horse care questions. It’s better to be over-prepared and ready for whatever Mother Nature delivers!

Nick Hartog

by Nick Hartog

In 1994, Nick Hartog became an owner and President of Grand Meadows Equine Supplements bringing his talents and extensive background in domestic and international equine sales and manufacturing. He has a reputation for plain speaking of the truth. In 1997, when the US horse supplement market was something akin to the Wild West with a complete lack of standards, Nick personally tested 32 different horse joint supplements to see if they matched the label. Unsurprisingly, to him at least, only 2 products matched the label claim. Read more...