Cold Weather Considerations for Your Horse

Here are some facts and tips for you to use to help keep your horses healthy and happy while the freezing temperatures are upon us. The take home points are to turn your horse out if possible, resist the urge to close your barn up tight, increase the amount of hay that you feed rather than grain, provide warm water when possible, blanket properly only if necessary and keep riding with a few adjustments!

Shelter

  • Most horses are happier and healthier when allowed outdoors with a shelter option
  • Horses tolerate temperatures down to near -40° Fahrenheit in the absence of wind or moisture!
  • Closed and heated barns are often inadequately ventilated, contributing to respiratory conditions or other illness…leave a door or window open to allow adequate ventilation
  • Condensation on the inside of your windows means that your barn is not ventilated well enough

Food

  • A safe bet for cold weather feeding is to increase the grass or mix hay in the diet by 20%
  • Digesting fiber is the horse’s most effective way to generate heat
  • Feeding more corn or other “hot” cereal grains provides more calories and energy, but does not contribute greatly to the generation of heat
  • Hay contains more fiber than grain and is broken down in the hindgut by the process of fermentation, directly generating an internal warming effect
  • Less mature, high quality grass or mix hay is more palatable and holds water better in the gut than more mature, straw-like hay (which may contribute to gastrointestinal impactions)

 

Dr. Jennifer Wright’s “Consuelo” eating her hay

Water

  • Horses will drink more water when the water is kept between the temperatures of 45-65° F
  • Horses often need more water in cold weather due to the large amount of fiber they are consuming, and often drink immediately after or during a hay meal
  • Horses drink less water when the water is cold, increasing the risk of impaction colic
  • Increased energy and calories are required to warm cold water to body temperature

Blanketing

  • Blanketing is often not necessary if the horse has a natural winter coat, is a body condition score 5/9 or higher, and there is no wind or moisture in the air
  • Clipped horses must be blanketed
  • Blankets should fit well and be waterproof and breathable
  • Remove blanket daily to check for proper body temperature, dermatitis or skin rubs

Riding

  • Adjust for cool muscles, ligaments and tendons with 50% longer warm up/cool down times
  • Consider using a quarter sheet, otherwise known as an exercise sheet or rug
  • Horses should be rubbed as dry as possible after riding
  • Do not ride if it is so cold that  your nostrils “stick together” when you sniff in quickly

Hoof Care

  • Unshod horses are less likely to accumulate large “ice balls” than shod horses
  • Ask your farrier about snow pads if you must maintain your horse in shoes while snow is present
  • Watch for indications of sole bruises or subsolar abscesses caused by frozen and rutty ground

(Note:  this information is for a healthy horse of adequate body condition…old, sick or otherwise debilitated horses may require additional or different care).