Cold weather can be harsh and brings with it some risks to our pets that we need to be aware of. Surprisingly horses adapt well to cold weather, but still require close attention to certain conditions to help ensure they remain healthy during the winter months. Here are some tips for caring for horses in cold weather.
One of the biggest enemies of horses when temperatures drop is the wind. Cold temperatures are one thing, but when they are accompanied by winds, their effects are more severe and conditions become more difficult to regulate. To help protect your horse against the extreme temperature drops, you can provide a shelter to act as a wind screen or guard when your horse has to spend time outdoors. The shelter does not have to be fully enclosed, but can consist of three sides, with the open side placed on the side away from the direction the wind is originating from. To figure out which side this is, you simply need to be familiar with your locality’s winter weather patterns. Most people can recall this information pretty quickly when they think about it. Make the 3-sided windbreak wider than deeper, or your horse may refuse to enter it for protection. Horses do not like to enter long narrow spaces willingly. People who own horses may be familiar with this, as trailering some horses is difficult because they resist entering the narrow space.
Another way to protect your horse when he spends time outdoors is to blanket him. Although horses grow a full, thick coat for those colder months, which suits them very well for the cold temperatures, adding a blanket on the more extreme days helps to make sure they are not exposed to temperatures too extreme for their bodies to handle. When you place a blanket on him for his outdoor activity, make sure you take it off him as soon as he is returned to his stall. You will also need to make sure you thoroughly brush your blanketed horse when you remove the blanket. Don’t forget to check your horse’s skin for chaffing and skin irritation. It is important to note that if you do decide to place a blanket on your horse that you use a blanket that is warm enough to hold in body heat. A blanket that is too thin and fails to hold in body heat is worse than no blanket at all. A horse’s winter coat will stand up in extreme temperatures to trap in body heat. If you are using a thin blanket, it not only fails to retain body heat, but also keeps the horse’s fur laying flat, which allows even more body heat to escape.
Extreme drops in temperature will require you to adjust your horse’s feeding routine to help his body handle the winter temperature changes. A good source for helping to heat your horse is extra hay. Whether they are eating it or you are providing extra protection in their stalls, you will need to make sure they have plenty of clean, fresh hay throughout the winter. Only healthy hay should be used. Good quality hay should be green, have a sweet smell and not show any signs of mold or have a stale or unpleasant odor. Because there is more darkness and dampness during the winter months, you should make sure you examine hay regularly and keep it clean and dry under a tarp. If you are uncertain about the hay you are going to feed your horse, wait until you can examine it in full sunlight to make sure it is not moldy or unhealthy for your horse. Try to keep the hay free of dust by shaking it well before using it to feed or cover the stall floor. The amount of hay to feed your horses should be at least one bale per horse. If you have more than one horse stalled in the same area, place one bale more than the number of horses for feeding to make sure each has more than enough hay and does not try to compete for another horse’s feed.
Feed and Water
When pasture grasses stop growing during the winter months, it may be necessary to increase feeding and supplementation to make sure your horse it getting enough to eat during the winter months. Make sure you check your horse both visually and by using your hands to monitor any possible weight loss. A few extra pounds will help keep your horse warm during the cold season, but an underweight horse will be more at risk for losing important body heat. Remember that a winter coat may hide the obvious signs of weight loss, so check him regularly to make sure his ribs are not more prominent and he is not getting thinner.
Make sure your horse’s teeth are in good condition. Have an equine dentist check them to make sure they are healthy and can handle the added feeding during the winter months, by being free of abscesses, are not loose, painful and decaying. It may also be necessary to add supplements to your horse’s feeding routines to ensure nutritional needs are being met. A sick horse is always difficult to deal with, but when the temperatures turn dangerously cold, the risk is even greater. Your equine veterinarian will be able to advise you on any nutritional adjustments for winter months.
Obviously it’s going to be more difficult to keep water from freezing, but it will be important to take the extra steps necessary to see that your horse has fresh water daily in ample amounts to help digest the extra feed he may be getting to keep his weight at a healthy level. Although a horse will eat snow, and this provides some measure of moisture for them, it is important to still provide an ample water supply. A horse will require from 5 to 10 gallons of water daily, and that would require an awful lot of snow to compensate for that need. Keep the hose you use to fill the water trough inside and away from the harsh winter weather, so that it will not freeze, but can be used from an indoor water source to fill your horse’s water bin. Using a rubber container for your horse’s water will help keep it from freezing too quickly.
Riding and Exercise
Many horse owners will continue to ride or work their horses during the cold winter months. If your horse’s exercise and riding routine does not change, you will need to make sure you take additional precautions to keep him healthy and safe when the temperatures become very cold:
- Check with your farrier about using pads or caulks on your horse’s hooves. No matter how careful you try to be, ice and snow can still buildup in our horse’s hooves. When riding (especially for extended periods) make sure you check regularly and utilize a hoof pick to remove any built up ice or frozen debris from the bottom of the hoof.
- If you live in an area where excesses of snow are not unexpected, you can use petroleum jelly or even a non-stick cooking spray to help reduce the buildup of ice and snow in the grooves of the horseshoes.
- When the weather turns windy and wet, consider utilizing a blanket to help keep your horse’s coat dry, as a wet coat will become flat and lose its ability to provide ample warmth for your horse.
- Keep your horse's hooves properly clipped and groomed, as shorter hooves will be less likely to become compacted with snow and also chip less.
- Make sure you keep your horse’s stable well ventilated. Despite the colder temperatures, a horse in a poorly ventilated barn may suffer lung disease because of poor air quality and bad ventilation. Because a horse will still need to urinate and void himself, the air can quickly become heavy with ammonia fumes and bacteria can build up from the accumulating feces.
How do you keep your horse warm and healthy in cold weather? Share your ideas with us in the comments!