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Winter Care for your Horse

Ann Swinker, Ph. D., Penn State University, Extension Equine Specialist

Neglect—is the worse thing that happens to the horse during the winter months.  Most horses are turned out to pasture and we only see them in the dark at feeding time. In the summer months, it is easy to provide loving care for the horse, when we are riding every day and want to make certain the horse is fit and in good health.

About the worst thing for a horse during the winter months is ice; most importantly, the ice that covers the watering trough or water bucket. Water for the horse during cold weather is too often overlooked. The water may freeze up making it inaccessible to the horse. Mature horses need about 10 gallons of water a day. To keep the horse healthy during freezing weather owners should make sure an ample supply of fresh water is always available. Excessively cold water will decrease the horses’ consumption of water. Ideally, water should be maintained at a temperature of 40oF. When the horse drinks less water, feed intake will decrease. A reduction in feed intake results in less energy being available to maintain body temperature and body weight during the cold months. Reduced feed and water intake could lead to colic and an impacted intestinal tract in the horse.

To help prevent water consumption problems in the winter, water should be made as accessible to the horse as possible. Heated waterers are one way to assure your horse an ample supply of drinking water. If electric water heaters are used, the water tank should be checked every day to insure that the heater is not shorting out and shocking the horse. An electric shock would prevent the horse from drinking.

The horse has two natural defenses against cold, a long hair coat and a layer of fat beneath the skin. Both provide an excellent means of insulation against the cold. The long winter hair coat serves as insulation by reducing the loss of body heat and provides the first line of defense against the cold. Its insulating value is lost when the horse becomes wet and/or is covered with mud. This is why it is important to provide a dry sheltered area in cold wet weather and regular grooming. In damp weather, be alert for rain rot and other skin problems.  If unchecked, rain rot can result in hair loss and irritation to the horse. It is very important to keep the horse from loosing its hair coat and body weight and approaching an energy deficient state (the horse must be properly fed). 

Most nutritional needs of the horse do not change during the winter season. Vitamin, mineral and protein requirements will still depend upon the horse’s age and physiological status and not on the time of year. The horse should be fed according to body condition. Thin horses should be fed some supplemental grain in addition to good quality hay to assure enough energy to produce warmth, while a fat horse will require little or no increase from their fall diet. Most mature horses that are idle and in good flesh can survive the winter quite well on good quality hay and ample clean water.

Horses will generally consume 1 to 1 ½ pounds of hay per 100 pounds of body weight and if needed ½ to 1½ pounds of grain per 100 lbs of body weight. If a horse is not maintaining good body condition or is performing some work, grain should be added to the diet. Roughage is digested in the cecum and colon by bacterial fermentation and a great deal of heat is produced in this process. If you must supplement your hay with grain, one of the safest of grains to feed is oats.  However, corn contains twice as much energy as an equal volume of oats therefore a small amount of corn added to the diet will increase the energy supply. Contrary to popular belief corn does not produce heat it produces energy that can later be converted to heat; it is the digestion of the hay that quickly produces the heat. However, for the thin horse, corn will provide the energy needed to keep the horse in good body condition and provides the energy needed for work.  Cold weather is a real stress as the horse generates enough heat to provide body warmth during the coldest of weather. A horse's nutritive needs will be higher when it is minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, than it will be when the temperatures are around 50 degrees.

Do not overfeed. Overfeeding can cause too much weight gain during the winter, and lead to laminitis and other health problems in the spring.

Vitamin and mineral requirements are a year-round concern. All horses should have access to trace mineralized salt to meet their electrolyte and trace mineral needs. Adequate levels of vitamins are present in sufficient amounts in good quality horse feed, especially in well-preserved green hay. However, if the hay appears brown, weathered and the hay quality is questionable, additional vitamin supplementation may be needed. A commercial vitamin mineral supplement can be used to provide what is missing from the hay.

While horses need shelter from cold winds, rain and snow; it is not necessary to keep them in a closed barn throughout the winter. Horses kept outdoors in the winter with access to a run-in shed, that opens away from the normal wind patterns, will generally have fewer respiratory disease problems than horses kept in poorly ventilated, heated barns. With a three-sided shed, the horse can take shelter during a rain or snowstorm and its insulating hair remains dry and fluffed. When the storm is over, the horse can emerge and be comfortable even though the mercury has drops below zero.  Horses maintained in an enclosed barn should be exercised regularly, to maintain muscling and health.

Show horses with hair coats that are artificially short should not be turned outside in bitter winter cold without protection of a blanket or windbreak. If you do have a show horse that is housed in a barn during most of the winter, the barn should be adequately ventilated in order to reduce the risk of respiratory disease. Proper ventilation eliminates excess moisture and condensation buildup. Care should be taken to also prevent a direct draft on the horse; this will cause stress and additional problems.  Even in cold weather horses frequently prefer to be outdoors. The horse, when given the opportunity, will acclimate to cold temperatures without much difficulty.

One important aspect of care that often is neglected is hoof care.   Even though you are not regularly riding the horse, the hooves still grow during the winter months. In addition, the horse is traveling on uneven, frozen ground that can crack and break feet.  Have the shoes removed and the hooves trimmed before turning the horse out for winter, and have the feet trimmed on a regular basis.  This insures that when spring arrives, the horse will have sound hooves that will be capable of holding a shoe.  Also, be on the alert for the presence of lice and mites.  Parasites, both internal and external, can be heavily implicated by winter.

The important thing is—do not just turn horses out and forget about them.  Every day at every feeding, horses should receive at least a visual examination. 

Feeding recommendations can be obtained from the National Research Council (NRC) at 202/334-2138 or search the web at http://www.nationalacademies.org/.  More information on horse care is available from your Penn State University Cooperative Extension Office.