Winter Weather Care for Your Horse

by Jill J. Dunkel

In cold weather, many horse owners are riding less and less, but the routine care of your horse doesn't decrease. In fact, extra care may be required to keep your horse in good condition in cold weather.

Weather & Feed

All warm-blooded animals naturally regulate their body temperature. When the environmental conditions fall below the animal’s comfort zone or critical temperature, heat is produced by the body to keep the animal warm. This is done by speeding up chemical reactions in the body that produce heat, such as digestion.

This results in an increase of digestible energy requirements for the horse, or basically, more feed. But how much more should we feed? And should it be hay or grain? It all depends on the horse’s critical temperature.

The lower critical temperature for a horse varies between 30 degrees Fahrenheit (F) and 60 degrees F, depending on the horse’s hair coat and the weather conditions. According to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL), a horse with a short or wet hair coat has a lower critical temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit, one with moderate hair coat of 50 degrees F, and a horse with a heavy hair coat of 30 degrees F.

For each degree below the critical temperature, there is an increase in digestible energy requirements of one percent to maintain body temperature, states UNL research. So if it is 10 degrees F below the horse’s critical temperature, the increased energy requirement is 10 percent (or 2Mcal/day,) or approximately two additional pounds of hay. (This is based on the fact that most hays have an energy density of 1.0 Mcal/pound.)

Estimated Increase in Energy Needed at Different Levels of Cold for Mature Horses

Difference in F below Critical Temperature Digestible Energy Increase (meals/days) Feed Intake Increase* (lbs/day)
  0   0   0
  10   2   2
  20   4   4
  30   6   6
  40   8   8








*Assuring an energy density of 1.0 meal/lb., which is typical of many hays.

Wind and rain increase the lower critical temperature, so a horse that does not have access to shelter might need additional feed to meet its energy requirements.

 Effect of Wind and Rain on Energy Requirements for Mature Horses

Average Temp   Additional Meal/day Additional Hay
  32 F  10-15 mph wind  4-8 meal/day  4-8 lbs/day
  32 F  rain  6 meal/day  6 lbs/day
  32 F  rain and wind  10-14 meal/day*  10-14 lbs/day*






*May not be able to consume enough hay to meet that requirement.

Hay or a forage diet is better than grain to meet a horse’s increased energy requirements. Hay or forages contain more fiber than grain, and more heat is produced digesting fiber than digesting grain. So providing the horse with as much hay as it will consume without wasting is a good way to provide extra energy.

However, during extremely cold conditions or cold for an extended period of time, a horse may not be able to consume enough hay to meet its energy needs. In that case, grain supplementation may be necessary to meet those energy requirements. But use caution when adding grain. A sudden large increase in grain can lead to colic and founder. When you re expecting a long or wet cold spell, gradually increase the horse’s diet to accommodate its projected cold weather energy requirements.

Don’t forget to check the horse’s water. Although water intake is typically reduced during cold spells, horses can still be expected to drink eight to 12 gallons per day, according to UNL research. Remove any ice crystals, and keep the water clean.

Hair Coat and Hoof Care

A horse’s hair coat is its first defense from the cold. A long coat will provide tremendous warmth as long as it is kept dry. Even the hair in the ears and around the fetlocks adds to the insulation, so do not clip those areas if possible.

When cold weather sets in, the hair stands up, trapping and retaining body heat. Once the hair coat becomes wet, it loses its insulating ability and lays flat against the horse’s skin, lowering the horse’s critical temperature and increasing feed needs. With that in mind, it is often economical to consider building a three-sided shed or windbreak to shelter the horse from the wind and moisture.

Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean hoof care can be neglected. Horses turned out on pasture should have their shoes pulled so that snow and ice will not pack inside the hoof. However, hooves should still be trimmed regularly to keep them from cracking and breaking off. Hooves that are not properly cared for during the winter months may be hard to shoe when it’s time to ride again.

So even if it’s snowing and you re cozy by the fire, don’t forget your horse is depending on you to keep him nice and warm!