BRRRR, it’s Cold Outside! Know the Winter Basics

By Eleanor Richards

Caring for your horse in the winter can be a challenge, but there are steps you can take to help keep him healthy and comfortable. Nutrition, shelter and basic health are important year around, but during the cold winter months, are critical.


Water is the most important nutrient in a horse’s diet. Many colic cases occur due to dehydration. Fresh, clean water accessible 24 hours a day is mandatory.  Heated water buckets, stock tank deicers or heated automatic waterers help ensure water remains unfrozen. These units must be cleaned and monitored daily. 
Water and electricity do not mix! Follow installation instructions. Install ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFI/GFCI) outlets.  Have a back-up water source in case exposed water lines freeze.  Do not expect a horse to eat snow or break through the ice and remain healthy.  Intake will not be adequate and the temperature of the body's core will be lowered.
The average adult horse at rest requires about 10 gallons of water per day. Many horses will not drink cold water. The preferred temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 C). Research has shown that if a horse has a bucket of warm water and one that is cold, it will drink the cold water first. But more warm water will be consumed if only warm is available. 
Horses are grazers. Access to plenty of good, clean, nutritional forage (hay) is mandatory. The digestion of fiber in the hindgut generates heat and helps keep the horse warm.  In a perfect world horses would have grass hay available free choice at all times.  But at least a minimum of 1.5% – 2.0% of the body weight should be fed each day; this amount will vary with individual horses and hay quality. 
A balanced commercial feed that complements the forage and meets the horse’s nutritional requirements should be offered. The barn manager needs to evaluate each individual horse: 
• Is the horse lacking protein? Signs are poor muscle tone over the back, shoulders, and loin area. Poor hoof quality and hair coat are also symptoms of protein deficiency. Chose a commercial mix that provides good quality protein.
• Is the horse receiving enough calories? All horses should have some fat covering the rib area. Close your eyes and run your hand over his ribs – how much pressure must you apply in order to feel ribs? If you can feel ribs without applying any pressure he needs calories – add a balanced commercial mix designed for the age, health and activity level of the horse. Follow the feeding directions. If you can’t feel ribs and want to decrease calories make sure you don’t short him on protein, vitamins and 
• Is the horse a pregnant mare, a stallion ready to enter breeding season, a young horse starting training, a senior having a weight problem, or a horse with health problems? The hay usually will not provide all the nutrition needed for these individuals. 
Vitamin, mineral and energy requirements must be considered for each horse.  A common misconception is increasing or adding corn to the diet, thinking it will keep the horse warm. Corn will increase digestible energy in the diet, but will not generate internal heat. Offer more hay instead!
Most healthy horses will be fine if they are provided a windbreak and dry, clean place to stand and lie down. Horses with special concerns such as seniors, foals or compromised health will need individual care. Observe the horse: Is he shivering? Is he standing by himself with a depressed attitude and no interest in his surroundings? This horse needs immediate attention.
Do not expect a horse to stand ankle deep in mud and remain healthy.  Horses kept in air-tight stalls can develop respiratory problems. Make sure the stalls are well-ventilated and ammonia from urine does not build-up. Avoid drafts.
Blanketed horses need to be checked daily. Make sure the blankets are dry, clean and fit properly. Be sure the horse is not sweating.
Deworming – it is important to prepare horses for the stress of winter by maintaining a good deworming program. A horse supporting a large worm count will have trouble remaining healthy during the winter months.
Hoof care – it is easy to ignore the care of the hooves during the cold and often muddy winter season — “no hoof, no horse.”  Horses need regular farrier work and the hooves kept clean. A horse standing in a wet, dirty stall is prone to thrush and other hoof problems. 
Vaccinations – a good vaccination program is important. If a horse becomes sick with a disease that could have been prevented through vaccination the recovery time can be longer during the stress of the winter months; not to mention the added work for the caretaker, who is also struggling with the routine chores.
Exercise – horses need routine exercise to maintain good digestive movement, good mental attitude and muscle tone. If the horse becomes sweaty and hot be sure to cool him out properly.
Do not neglect your horse during inclement weather. Yes, it is dark, cold and windy, but your horse depends on you.