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Winter Care for Horses

December 10, 2013

Dr. Mark Russell, Assistant Professor – Equine Extension

Caring for horses during the winter can offer many challenges. The overall health of the horse can be affected by many of the things we do or don’t do on a daily basis. Here are some actions to avoid when caring for horses during cold months.

1.      Over blanketing.

If your horse has already grown his winter hair, he will not need a blanket or a sheet. The long hair serves as the warming device for the horse and blanketing them can actually have a reverse effect. If blanketed with a thick hair coat, the blanket will push the hair down, squeezing out the air spaces and the hair isn’t able to insulate the way it’s intended. The thick hair is grown in a natural manner, allowing the horse to have a strong tolerance for cold weather. Additionally, if the blanket gets wet, it can take several hours to dry completely and can potentially cause the horse to get sick. If possible, it is best if the horse can stay dry during winter months. Having a cover for them to get under or a wind block can help the horse feel more comfortable during winter months.

A light sheet is good to put on a horse after a workout. If a horse is sweaty and wet with a long hair coat, it will take longer to dry and restore to outside temperatures, thus resulting in a chilled or sick horse.

2.      Keeping a horse indoors only.

Many horse owners enjoy having a heated barn. However, in this area, horses typically do not need additional heating in their barns. In the northern part of the U.S., where temperatures dip below 0 degrees more commonly, it may be something to consider.

If heating is used, it is best if they are above the aisle and stalls and face the inner parts of the barn. A range between 55 and 60 degrees is optimal. Research has shown that horses do not require the same temperatures to remain comfortable as humans.

Care should be taken when heating a barn to insure that fire codes are met and that air exchanges in the barn are maximized. Unfortunately, heated barns usually have less ventilation and, if this isn’t watched carefully, can lead to respiratory illnesses due to excess ammonia and bacteria. If possible, build or modify your barn to have open windows and doors, even in cold weather, are actually the best for the horse.

Even if the barn is not heated, many horse owners are still tempted to keep them in a barn too often. It mostly depends on location and elements. If it is blowing snow and windy, horses are generally better off inside a barn. If it is 20 degrees, but still sunny outside and with little wind, horses are better off outdoors.

Of course the best option may be to offer the horse cover by way of a 3 sided barn, where the horse can walk in and out of cover freely. Having an escape route that the horse can use regularly will help them feel more comfortable about their surroundings and help keep stress levels low. This is the reason many times a horse will stay outside in snow and rain, when they have the option to be under a roof but do not use that alternative.

3.      Not enough exercise.

Even if a horse is left outdoors mostly during cold weather, they may not move around much. This can result in leg edema (stocking up). If the snow is light and less than a foot, putting them on a longe line or even hand walking can help with cardiovascular conditioning and help with blood flow.

Exercise can also help the overall mood of the horse. A horse that is active will be less likely to display poor behavior.

4.      Allowing water to freeze over.

Horses limit their intake of ice-cold water to only what is absolutely necessary to satisfy thirst, which may not be adequate to maintain optimal hydration. This is why dehydration is just as big of a problem during the winter as it is during the summer.

It is important that horses are given access to an unlimited amount of water (usually 10 gallons or more) that is free of ice at least once a day in sub-zero weather, especially if water is available only in buckets or troughs. If automatic, heated waterers are used, units should be checked daily to make sure they are functioning properly and have not become frozen or have electrical shorts that cause horses to receive shocks when drinking. To help encourage drinking water, a tablespoon or two of plain salt can be added to grain and, if feeding pelleted feeds or hay cubes, they can be soaked in water to further increase water intake.

5.      Adjusting feed rations when temperatures dip.

      Research shows that forages should be increased by approximately 2% during cold months. Forage (hay) provides an excellent source of calories and protein. Also, the process of digesting fiber (most hays are high in fiber) helps keep a horse warmer. It is best to have your hay tested to determine quality. Higher quality hay can go a long way in keeping your horse warm during cold months. However, forage intake doesn’t have to necessarily be done through hay. It can also be done through winter grazing of rye or wheat grasses.

 6.      Lack of hoof care.

During colder months, many horse owners will pull the shoes off their horse. While this is a great thing, be careful not to neglect hoof care all together. Hooves still should be trimmed and cleaned regularly. This becomes especially important when snow and/or ice are on the ground. When snow or ice becomes compacted in a hoof, it can cause discomfort to the horse and eventual lameness.

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