Winter Care for Horses

Jennifer Rice, DVM
Written by:
Published: June 28, 2022
Winter Care for Horses

Harsh winter months can pose numerous health concerns for horses. However, we can help to prepare our horses for winter and provide the best outdoor winter experience for them, no matter their age or lifestyle.

Considerations that are important for horses during the winter months include:

Shelter for Horses

Providing horses access to shelter all year round is very important, but especially important during the winter months. If your horse lives out in pasture year-round, a simple three-sided shed can work well for horses to get shelter from any wind, sleet, or snow. By providing shelter, horses can tolerate temperatures much colder outside (as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to having no shelter. Horses tend to be the most comfortable at temperatures 18-59 degrees depending on the individual. 

A three-sided run-in shed for two horses should ideally measure 12 feet x 20 feet, or 240 square feet. If the horses in the pasture all get along, add 60 square feet for each additional horse in the same pasture. It is very important to observe the horses in the pasture to make sure they are friends and can share the run-in shed.

Blanketing for Horses

A horse's coat can provide them with a natural blanket for the winter. Horses grow their winter hair naturally due to the amount of sunlight during the day. As the amount of daylight shortens during the winter months, horses will grow their winter coat. Conversely, horses lose their winter coat as the amount of daylight increases.

A horse's natural winter coat is a perfect insulator by trapping and warming air. If their coat becomes wet or muddy, it can greatly reduce the amount of insulation it can provide and may allow for increased heat loss. Because of this, it is very important to keep a horse dry and sheltered during the winter months, especially during precipitation. Blanketing can be a good option for some horses during the winter but is not needed for all horses. 

Blanketing a horse during the winter may be beneficial for the following scenarios:

  • No shelter is available 

  • Any chance the horse will become wet 

  • A horse has had their winter coat clipped 

  • A very young or very old horse

  • A horse has not been acclimated to cold weather 

  • A horse with a body condition score of 3 or less

Tips for blanketing horses:

  • It is very important to get the correct size blanket for your horse—properly fitted as to not cause any sores or rub marks.

  • Remove the blanket at least once a day to inspect for any sores or damage and to reposition it in case it has moved out of place. 

  • The blanket should always remain dry.

  • If you are using a blanket for turnout, buy a blanket labeled for turnout versus a stable blanket for barn/indoor use only.

  • Never put a blanket on a wet horse as it will trap the moisture inside and cause the horse to remain wet. 

  • Always allow your horse to dry completely before blanketing, especially if they get sweaty from exercise. 

  • As temperatures rise during the day, a horse's blanket may need to be removed to keep them from getting too warm and then placed back on them in the evening for the overnight hours.

Blanket Weight Recommendation Based on Temperature 

Blanket Weight Recommendations Chart

Water Access for Horses

Winter is one of the most important times to keep a horse well-hydrated. During the summer, a horse on pasture can get 60 to 80 percent moisture from the lush grass. This can contribute to the horses' daily water requirement. During the winter, the pastures' moisture content will drop to less than 15 percent. This means that a horse may need to drink more water during the winter to maintain proper hydration.

An average horse will need between 10-12 gallons of water daily. Staying hydrated is essential in the winter to help prevent colic due to impaction. Water intake directly impacts the digestive tract by keeping the fecal matter from becoming too dry. If the fecal matter becomes too dry, an intestinal blockage may occur. This can happen within several days to weeks with poor water intake. It is also important to note that snow/ice is not an adequate water source for horses.

Ways to encourage a horse to drink water during the winter include:

  • Maintaining the water temperature at 45-65 degrees

  • Increasing your horse's salt intake—an average adult horse should consume about 1 to 2 ounces of salt daily 

  • Regularly cleaning your horse's water buckets and providing fresh water

  • Checking daily for any worn wires or damage (if using heaters)

If you are concerned your horse is not drinking properly, offer warm or room temperature water in a bucket daily.

Hoof Care for Horses in Winter

Hoof care for horses is essential for maintaining a healthy horse year-round. In the winter, horse hooves generally grow slower than during the summer months. Regular hoof trimming should continue during the winter months every 6-12 weeks depending on the individual horse and farrier recommendation.

Pick out a horse's hooves daily to check for any abnormalities. During the winter when there is snow or ice on the ground, horses can develop snowballs on the bottom of their feet, which can cause them to be more prone to injuries as well as added stress on their joints and tendons.

In general, horses will have better traction in the snow if they are barefoot. If you have to keep horses shod during the winter, then it is best to keep them inside off any snow and ice whenever possible. Providing horses that are shod with snow pads and/or studs may help to prevent injury if they need to be out in snow or ice. Lastly, sole bruising can occur during the winter months with frozen hard ground.

Horses and Winter Weather

In times of heavy snow or ice, it is best to remove any horses from outside paddocks to prevent any injuries. Allow horses outside access again once the snow and ice melts. Sand can be used on slick surfaces to provide more traction when necessary. Do not to place sand in areas where a horse may ingest it, as it could cause sand colic. Salt can be used to help melt any snow or ice. Alternatively, spreading a thin layer of wood ash or manure may help provide some traction. Ultimately, removing any horses from slick areas is the safest recommendation.  

Horse Exercise in Winter

Horses can continue to be ridden during the winter months while keeping a few important aspects in mind. During extreme winter weather, a horse may be confined to their stall more than normal, and you may notice swelling in your horse's lower legs called stocking up. Providing a horse with daily turnout or exercise during the winter can help reduce incidence of stocking up and keep a horse in proper fitness. Be careful when riding in snowy or icy conditions, as they can be unsafe for both you and your horse.  

Properly cooling your horse down during the winter is very important, as you don’t want to leave your horse hot and wet in the barn. For horses that are regularly exercised, it may be beneficial to trace clip their winter coat (about 1/8th inch in length) in specific regions. These regions include: 

  • Underside of the neck

  • Abdomen down to the sides of the horse

  • Elbow to about a quarter of the way up the body

Discuss with your veterinarian to decide if clipping is the best practice for you and your horse.  

Body Condition Scoring in Winter

Thick, long winter hair can make it hard to see if a horse is becoming thin, so it is important to watch horses closely during the winter. Make sure to feel your horse's rib cage frequently for any signs of weight loss. If you have any concerns about weight, an exam by your veterinarian is recommended.  

Feeding Requirements for Horses in Winter

It’s important to consider your horse's feeding needs during the winter months. A horse that is kept outside all winter will likely need more hay than a horse that is kept in a barn. Digesting forage, especially hay, is one way a horse can produce heat and stay warm in cold temperatures. Grass is not as nutritious during the winter months, so it’s likely any horse will need some added calories by way of grain or hay in order to maintain a healthy body condition during the winter months.

References

University of Minnesota Extension. Caring for your horse in the winter. Reviewed 2021.

Featured Image: iStock.com/pipalana


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