Winter Care Tips for Horse Owners

Winter weather has definitely arrived and along with it come additional challenges when caring for horses.  Horses are surprisingly adaptable to cold weather but paying attention to the small details is especially important to ensure good horse health in the winter months.  Here are a few specific things horse owners should focus on when caring for horses in the winter.

  • Forage/hay– After a tough year of weather conditions for local hay growers, finding good local hay may prove to be a challenging task but providing quality forage or hay in the appropriate quantity is especially critical in the winter. The microbial digestion of hay by the horse actually creates body heat, helping to keep them warm in cold temperatures. Remember the average horse should be consuming about 2.0% of its body weight daily between hay and grain but a minimum of 1.5% of that should be in hay.  That’s a simple math problem. For example, if your horse weighs 1000 lbs:

1000 x 0.015(1.5% converted to decimal form) = minimum of 15 lbs of hay per day

Also consider adding soaked beet pulp or a hay stretcher to your horses’ diet if hay is at a premium. The use of these types of products can possibly help you slightly reduce the amount of hay you have to feed. Beet pulp is also a great way to help get more water into the horse and helps keep the hind gut functioning well.

  • Water-Water is always one of the most important nutrients for horses but it becomes especially critical in the winter when horses are consuming larger quantities of dry feed. Fresh pasture can consist of nearly 60-80% water but grain rations and hay are generally less than 15% moisture. Always make any changes to your horses’ diet gradually.  The risk of impaction colic in horses becomes greater in the winter. By providing your horse with warmed water (45-65º F), you can help to decrease this risk by increasing water consumption. Research has demonstrated that by providing horses with only warmed water, they will consume a greater quantity then if they have cold water or both warmed water and cold water offered simultaneously (they will usually chose cold and drink less). Make sure that the water is always clean and pay close attention to tank heaters and other devices used to warm water. Always check that cords are not worn or damaged and there is no stray voltage that could potentially shock the horse.


  • Teeth– During a time of the year when we typically need to increase feed to maintain body condition, make sure that your horses are able to extract as much nutrition out of what they are consuming as possible. This is especially critical in young and senior horses. Have your horses teeth checked and floated by a professional a minimum of once a year. Some seniors and those with dental issues will need more frequent attention.


  • Hoof Care – Good hoof care is always important but the conditions we experience here on Delmarva make winter hoof care even more critical and more challenging. The freeze thaw cycles and the slippery mud that come along with it, can create problems.  Combining these environmental issues with slower rates of hoof growth and hoof health issues such as thrush, white line disease and bruised soles can come along with winter weather.  Keeping horses hooves as dry as possible and picking them regularly to remove mud or even snow/ice along with good routine farrier care is very helpful in preventing these conditions that can develop and potentially nag us into the summer months. Discuss with your farrier if your horse should remain shod or barefoot in the winter. In general horses that are barefoot have better traction and will have fewer issues with the development of snowballs or snow packing in hooves. Keep up with routine farrier appointments even though you may not be riding as much.


  • Mud– Controlling mud in a horse’s winter environment is easier said than done this year especially but providing the horse with an area to escape the muddy areas that typically develop around gates, feeders and waterers is necessary. This does not need to be a stall but could be a well-drained sacrifice lot or dry run in shed. Appropriate stocking rates, good footing and good sanitation/regular manure removal is critical in maintaining these areas. Besides affecting hooves, excess mud that is not removed regularly from the horse can lead to the development of bacterial infections such as greasy heel, mud fever or scratches on the lower legs.


  • Shelter/Ventilation– Horses do not require a fancy barn to provide adequate shelter in the winter but being able to escape the wind and wet/storms is important. Be sure that you are providing enough space that all horses can shelter at once, including the lowest in the packing order of the herd. Horses that have a winter coat and are not blanketed do not begin to expend additional energy to keep warm until the temperature reaches about 18degrees, provided there is no rain or wind. If you choose to keep your horse stalled in the winter, make sure that ventilation is adequate and that the bedding material you use is not too dusty. Confinement in a dusty stall with too little ventilation can actually cause more health problems then if horses were left outside with good footing and adequate protection from the weather.


  • Blanketing– Blanketing has been widely discussed among horse owners for years and could be an entire additional article. It comes down to a personal choice and how much work the horse will do in the winter. Age and body condition can also play a role in this decision. If you decide to blanket your horse with a winter appropriate turnout, then be sure to check under that blanket very regularly. Make sure the blanket stays dry, look for rubbing and chafing, inspect for the development of skin conditions such as rain rot and routinely monitor body condition scores on blanketed horses.

Horses don’t need to be doted on in the winter but by paying attention to some of these daily details of winter horse care and being well prepared, your horse will survive the winter months happy, healthy and ready to return to the arena, show ring or trail come spring.

Susan Garey, Extension Agent Animal Science, University of Delaware

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