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Winter Horse Care Tips and Tidbits

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Here in Maryland, we are in our coldest month of the year. This is when our temperatures drop down into the single digits. Last year it got down to 5° F (-15 Celsius) which with the wind chill factor becomes a below 0 negative number. Burrrr!

Winter here is cold enough but this month is our worst. I always worry about any stray animals and even some wild ones. I put out food, warm water, and insulated shelters around my home for any animal in need.

But I also worry about my horses. I know that they have lots of fur and a special layer that helps them stay healthy in the winter, but I still worry and want to do whatever I can to make the winter less traumatic for them.

Especially now that I have a baby in the family, Merlin. He just turned 10 months and this is the first winter of his life. He is a Friesian and his bloodline comes from a line of horses from the Netherlands, so they are used to very cold temperatures. That’s a plus for right now.

But to find out more about what a young colt needs in the winter…I did my research.

Since this is Merlin’s first winter, it is important to do it right. What happens now will give his body a pattern to follow for years to come. I want to make sure that I’m up on the latest tips and tidbits to help him acclimate properly.

Here’s what I found out –

Caring for your horse during the cold winter months isn’t harder than other times, but there are a few things to watch out for. Factors like ice, snow, freezing rain, and critical temperatures.

Quick Steps

  1. Provide warm water (45° to 65° F).
  2. Feed additional hay during extreme cold.
  3. Make sure there is access to shelter.
  4. Perform regular hoof care.
  5. Assess your horse’s body condition regularly.
  6. Evaluate your facility’s stability and ventilation.

Preparing for Cold Winter Temperatures in General

Lower critical temperature is the temperature below which a horse needs additional energy to maintain body warmth. The lower critical temperature estimate for horses is 41° F with a summer coat and 18° F with a winter coat. This means that I am definitely watching this right now with Merlin with the very low temps.

Individual factors that can affect a horse’s lower critical temperature include hair length and body size. Whether a horse is lightly wet with snow or thoroughly soaked wet with freezing rain will also affect a horse’s lower critical temperature.

A horse with short hair exposed to cold, wet weather will have a higher lower critical temperature than that of a cold-weather-acclimated horse with a thick hair coat and fat stores. If a horse has become so wet it has caused his hair and his skin to become dripping wet, this too will cause more of a health threat in winter. So keeping Merlin from getting completely soaked in the winter rains is very important.

A horse can become chilled and get sick. I’ve seen this many times when an owner leaves their horse out in the freezing rain during a cold winter and instead of getting under the shelter, their horse stands out and gets thoroughly soaking wet.  Merlin is young, he’s learning.

Sometimes they need our guidance and protection in order not to get sick. This is when you need to step in and bring them inside into a stall. Just a dry, warmer area can prevent a major health issue. This is especially important for young horses learning what they need to survive and stay healthy.

Smaller animals have a greater surface area relative to body weight and can lose heat more rapidly than a larger animal. A young, smaller horse may reach their lower critical temperature before a mature horse. Another thing to pay close attention to in a young horse during the winter.

Cold weather can also slow growth in young horses because calories go from weight gain to temperature maintenance. To lessen a growth slump during cold weather, you should feed additional calories to young horses.

I read that as temperatures decrease during the winter months, a horse needs additional dietary energy to maintain its body temperature and a healthy condition. For every degree below 18° F the horse requires an additional one percent energy in their diet. According to studies, the best source of additional dietary energy during the cold winter months is forage.

Some people believe that feeding more grain will keep a horse warmer. But digestion, absorption, and utilization of grain don’t produce as much heat as the microbial fermentation of forage. More forage increases microbial fermentation and keeps the horse warm.

So that means that if a 1000-pound horse needs 20 pounds of good-quality hay daily when the temperature is above 18° F, it will now require an increase of about 5 to 10 pounds per day when the temp drops below that. The increased dietary energy requirement would be even greater if the horse doesn’t have access to a shelter.

Now let’s get into the six steps I mentioned above in more detail below:

1. Your horse needs more water in the winter

The main goal in any type of weather should always be to maximize the amount of water your horse drinks to help prevent dehydration and colic. Most 1,000-pound adult horses need at least 10 to 12 gallons of water per day.

As winter begins, provide your horse with warm water every day. The water should be between 45˚ and 65˚ F. Check your water supply throughout the day to make sure it hasn’t iced over or become too cold.

Clean the ice out of the water trough regularly to ensure that your horse has all the drinking water it needs. You can even watch this video and try my salt water in a bottle trick to stop your outside trough from freezing all the way through.

Click the play button below to watch the video now.

During the summer months, lush pastures contain 60 to 80 percent moisture and can contribute to your horse’s water requirement. However, in the winter you have dried feed such as grain and hay which contain less than 15 percent moisture. Because of this, your horse requires more water in the winter.

If your horse doesn’t drink enough water during cold weather months they may eat less and therefore be more prone to impaction colic. It’s actually more important to watch your horse’s intake of water in the winter.

Even if you offer quality feed, top-notch grain, and hay in the pasture, your horse will still eat less if he is not drinking enough water. If your horse eats less food, he might not have enough energy to tolerate the cold. And again this would be a health issue, especially in a young horse.

Water is also important for your horse as it maintains your horse’s fecal moisture level. If fecal material becomes too dry, intestinal blockage or impaction may occur and cause colic. A horse won’t develop an impaction in one day but he can over several days to several weeks if he has poor water intake.

It’s something to watch, for sure.

2. Your horse needs more food in the winter

As we mentioned earlier, your horse should be eating more food during the winter months. The cause isn’t that your horse is bored, it’s because he is eating to stay warm. The extra food helps him gain enough energy to keep his body temperature at a healthy level.

So make sure your horse has enough forage to provide for his larger appetite. He naturally knows that he needs it to stay healthy and survive the cold winter temperatures.

To recap what I said earlier, your horse typically eats about 2% of its weight in food. If your horse weighs 1,000 lbs., then he will consume about 20 lbs. of food a day during the warmer period of the year. However, during the winter, the rate of food needed should increase to 3% for most horses (25-30 lbs.).

Your horse will, and should, eat more during the winter months, so make sure you provide extra food throughout the winter. If they are young and still growing, they will need even more food to continue growing and stay warm.

3. Your horse needs Shelter in the winter

Your horse will need shelter during the cold winter days and nights, especially if it is snowy, windy, or rainy. If you do not have a stable to keep your horse in a stall during those months, make sure you have a run-in shed or a shelter for your horse when it needs protection from inclement weather.

Your horse will want somewhere that it can retreat to in order to get away from the snow, ice, and rain, somewhere it can stay dry and warmer. They don’t always go in when the weather gets bad, but eventually, they will use it if the weather gets bad enough. Hopefully.

Your horses should at least have access to a shelter from the wind, sleet, and storms when they need it. Free access to a stable or an open-sided shed works well too, as do a dense patch of trees if a building is not available. In the absence of wind and moisture, adult horses can tolerate temperatures at or slightly below 0° F.  Young horses tolerate less than adult horses and need to stay warmer.

If adult horses have access to a shelter, they can tolerate temperatures as low as -40° F. But horses, with their thick natural winter fur coats, are most comfortable at temperatures between 18° and 59° F.

4. Your horse needs hoof care in the winter

You should always provide regular hoof care to your horse. But in the cold winter months, it is more important to check their hooves. If your horse is out in the pasture all day, check his hooves several times a day to make sure there is no ice or snow clumps building up in the hoof. Ice or snow lumps can cause significant pain and can cause damage to your horse’s hoof.

I read that horse hooves generally grow slower in the winter. I didn’t know this. But your horse still needs to be trimmed every 6 to 12 weeks in the winter, depending on their hoof growth.

In the cold winters, horse hooves are prone to “ice or snowballs”. These balls of packed ice or snow make it hard for the horse to walk, they increase the horse’s chance of slipping and falling, and they put stress on your horse’s tendons and joints.

You should be especially careful to pick your horse’s hooves daily in the winter, especially after a heavy snow. Sole bruising can also be a problem in the winter, especially when working on uneven or frozen ground.

Just as a side note – I also read that horses have better traction on snow and ice when left barefoot compared to being shod. So, if your horse requires shoes, please take extra care to prevent slipping and snow from packing in the hoof. And please don’t run your horse on icy patches or ice-covered driveways. That can be dangerous for both of you.

5. Assess your horse’s body condition in the winter

Grooming is one way to do this. Grooming your horse regularly throughout the winter is a good way to check for any physical injuries or notice any changes to their coat.

Here are four reasons why you should make grooming an important step when you see your horse.

  1. Better circulation: Grooming your horse daily can help to improve his circulation; like getting a massage.
  2. Removal of mud, ice, snow, and dirt: When mud and snow are given the chance, they can latch onto a horse’s coat and “clump” up. These chunky pieces can get hard and irritate the skin and possibly lead to infections. Be very diligent about removing these pieces, especially when it is snowy.
  3. Warming up your horse: Again, think about a massage. By giving your horse a vigorous grooming session, you can help warm him up by getting the circulation going properly.
  4. Daily contact with your horse: Grooming your horse every day helps to strengthen the relationship, and the connection, between you and your horse.

Exercise is another way to check your horse out to assess his body condition.

Exercise shouldn’t stop during the winter months. It may be harder for you to get out and exercise or ride your horse in the cold winter but it is still needed. Your horse can get exercise in other ways too, besides just being ridden.

During extreme winter weather, owners often confine their horses in stalls for extended periods of time. Confinement and limited exercise can lead to lower-leg swelling (stocking up) and other health issues. So, there should be a happy medium.

You can provide your horse with just turnout or exercise in an outdoor or indoor arena if possible. Please be careful when riding in deep, heavy, or wet snow so that you don’t cause any tendon injuries.

These tough winter conditions can be very hard work to work in for your horse if they haven’t been conditioned for it. Again, please avoid icy areas for both your and your horse’s safety.

6. Evaluate your facility in the winter

It’s not only your horse you want to assess during the cold winter months. You also want to assess your facility as the safety of your facility will change depending on the weather conditions.

When assessing the pastures or paddocks look for dangerous icy patches. Icy paddocks can cause slips and falls that can lead to serious injuries for your horse. This happened with Apollo last winter when he injured his stifle by running around the pasture on frozen, uneven ground.

Of course, the best solution is always to remove your horse from the paddock until the ice melts, but this isn’t always the most convenient solution nor is it always possible. So here are two other options that may help icy paddocks…sand and salt.

I read that using sand will increase traction on ice. I’ve never done this myself, but I will try it this year. However, they say not to feed your horses near the spread sand as they may accidentally eat it. You don’t want to chance sand colic.

Another option is straight salt. I’ve used rock salt as this seems to also help traction and speed the melting of the ice if temperatures aren’t too cold. I couldn’t find any research about the effects of salt on horse hooves, but just to be safe, use pure salt in moderation.

If using pure salt to melt ice though, make sure your horse has an alternative source of salt to reduce eating it off the ground. I love Himalayan salt blocks and so do my horses.

But don’t use a mixture of sand and salt in your horse’s paddock. Horses may accidentally eat the sand in their interest in the salt. I’ve also heard that spreading a thin layer of wood ash or fresh manure can help too.

However, other options like shavings, hay, and straw tend to slide over ice and provide little traction. Sometimes when they get wet they can actually be just as slippery as ice. Small rocks can provide traction but then these can become lodged in the hooves or accidentally eaten. So, those are not really viable options.

When assessing barns and shelters look at their overall condition and structural strength. They should have truss certificates of at least 30 pounds per square foot of snow load. Most buildings usually fail at the joints, the weakest areas. If you’re worried about your barn in a heavy snowstorm, examine the trusses and joints to see if there is movement, cracking, or dry rot. Then try to get it repaired before the heavy, wet snowstorm hits

If your barn has a top section for hay storage, check this area regularly. Snow blowing into attics and wall spaces can melt and cause wet conditions suitable for mold and rotting. Just as I say, “listen to your horse”, listen to your barn as well. Wood will generally give warning sounds before complete failure.

Don’t forget to also check your barn’s ventilation as well. Ventilation helps control temperature and humidity levels and improves air quality. So poor ventilation can affect a horse’s respiratory health. Ceiling fans can help with air exchange. You should also always remove wet bedding and manure daily from barns even if it is just wet from the rain.

Proper winter horse care, including a diet rich in forage, providing proper water intake, protection from the cold and wet elements, and watching out for your horse a little extra is a great way to ensure your horse’s health and well-being during the cold winter months.

Stay warm and dry if you are going through a cold winter like me.

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  • BONNIE BERESFORD says:

    Teddie, what do you think about blanketing? You did not mention it so I am curious what you think. I have heard some people say that a horse blanket can make your horse even colder, because it flattens the insulating fur which holds heat from the body to keep your horse warm. Yet we humans can feel warmer when we wear thick coats, and we wear hats to prevent heat loss through our heads even though we (mostly) have heads of hair.

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