Winter care of the horse


winter2Autumn is certainly one of the most beautiful times of the year, particularly for the horse rider, writes Robert N. Oglesby DVM.

Autumn is also the harbinger of winter. Many people worry about their horse getting cold, but a healthy horse with an unclipped coat, shelter from the wind and rain, and a few management changes, will have no problem with moderate winters. The following preparations will help you and your horse get through the chilly season.


Feeding for the cold

One of the best ways to help your equine companion deal with cold temperatures is to increase the grain portion of his diet by 25% just before cold weather sets in. As temperatures drop a horse must spend more energy to keep warm. Do not increase his grain if he is already overweight and continue to monitor his weight and make further adjustments accordingly. Remember to regularly deworm your horse to insure he is getting the most from his feed.

Hay should be available to your horse free choice. Enough should be put out daily so the horse cleans it all up.

If the amount of hay your horse gets is controlled tightly also consider increasing the hay on cold days. Most of the heat from a ration comes from the microbial fermentation of the hay. If it gets very cold use the following formula to adjust a horses hay.

Take the lowest temperature expected for the day, in fahrenheit, and subtract the wind speed, in mph, from it. For every wind adjusted degree below 32F (0ºC), add 1% more hay by weight.

infologoFor example if the temperature is 25F (-4ºC) degrees and the wind is 10mph:
The adjusted temperature is 25 – 10 = 15F (-9.4ºC) degrees.
This is 32 – 15 = 17F (-8.3ºC) adjusted degrees below 32.
If the horse eats 25 lbs of hay a day: .17 (25) = 4.25 lbs more hay today.

If your horse is overweight you can still make the hay adjustments but you should look at your grain amounts and consider downward adjustments.

Good nutrition, regular deworming, and good grooming will all help maintain a warm coat. Do not underestimate the importance of regular brushing. A dirty, matted coat loses much of its ability to insulate. Persistent shivering is a good sign your horse is getting too cold and an indication management needs changing.


winter3Helpful tips for handling feed in the winter

Molasses-based feeds are difficult to handle when the temperature drops so try these ideas:

  1. Lay several strips of heat tape (used for water pipes) across the top bags. Cover with an old blanket. Alternatively a heat lamp directed at the feed for several hours should heat them up.
  2. Break up the feed up by dropping the unopened feed bag on the floor from a foot up several times.
  3. Keep a small garden rake around to break up feed in the bin.
  4. Switch to pelleted feed.


Keep it dry

An often overlooked problem in well cared for horses is the harmful effects of a tightly closed up barn during the cold months. Far more harmful than the cold is the high humidity and dust that builds up in a sealed up barn. The results can be an increase in allergic or infectious respiratory disease.

These effects are hardest on foals. Keep the barn dry and prevent a stiff wind from blowing through but keep it well ventilated. Closing the doors and window on the north side while keeping the two of the south and one other side open to the sun will work most of the time.


winterThe worst problem: frozen water

There is no greater aggravation than toting water in the cold when the pipes or hoses freeze. Plan now to get frost-free hydrants installed where the horses are watered. You will bless them daily as the temperatures stay below freezing. You still must remove and drain hoses each day.

When temperatures go below freezing it is easier to fill the buckets half full, if you can check them more frequently. This will keep you from coming down to a bucket full of ice. A little ice on the top can be easily broken and removed. A little ice on the bottom can be defrosted with the water put on top. If frozen solid a few gallons of hot water will melt it.

Keeping troughs from freezing may require insulating or partially burying of the sides and covering the top, leave a hole large enough to allow the horses to drink. Make sure the trough is in the sunniest place available. Water heaters are available and water turbulence from pumps or aerators will prevent freezing. Whatever you do, you must prevent electric cables from being chewed.


The most dangerous situation: icy walkways

Hundreds (if not thousands) of horses are put down for broken legs from slipping on ice every year. Horses without caulks should never be allowed to cross icy surfaces. Icy surfaces can be made passable by covering with bedding, cat litter, or sand. Or the ice can be melted with low nitrogen fertilizers. A frozen lake or pond present an extra hazard and should be fenced off if possible.


Do not add salt to the drinking water

Occasionally you see the recommendation to salt the water to encourage drinking. I do not think this is a good idea because it also increases the amount of water needed to stay healthy. Your best bet is to insure your horse has fresh water available at all times. The water should be in a convenient and relatively comfortable location out of the worst conditions.

[ » Pass the salt: electrolyte replacement for horses ]


mud-soilHoof care is more important when it is wet

Hooves may need special attention during the winter. Consider having the shoes removed if you will not be riding for three or more months. The nails weaken the walls and the shoe helps hold in dirt. Going barefoot will also toughen the soles. For problem feet there is no better prescription than being barefoot for several months. If ice is a serious problem where you live pulling the shoes may result in more slipping. Instead consider having the farrier add caulks to aid traction on frozen surfaces.

If your horse has problems with wall cracks that originate at the bottom you can do something to help. The cracks are usually due to excessive drying that comes from repeated wetting and drying.

Walls also crack from being allowed to grow too long. Regular application of a hoof wall sealant (avoid moisturizers) combined with timely trimming will insure that come spring his hoof walls will be ready to hold nails.

Another frequent problem in the winter is thrush, that black smelly goo around the frog. Though rarely a cause of lameness itself it can lead to other serious problems. Thrush prospers in a wet, dirty environment. A clean dry stall and regular hoof picking is all that is required to prevent the problem. If you already have the problem, a formalin-based hoof paint will quickly dry up the rotting mess.


covers_0459When is it too cold?

Usually cold alone is not enough to chill a healthy horse. It is the combination of cold, wet, and wind that chills a horse. So some of the worst days are not the coldest but the wettest. Two degrees, rain and a 15mph wind will set the hardiest horse to shivering.

Shelter from the wind and rain and adequate feed is all that is needed to make this horse comfortable. Barring that, a light but water resistant blanket may keep him from shivering.


This article was first published on Horsetalk in April, 2007, with permission from, an internet information resource for the equestrian and horse industry since 1994. On the WWW at we have tens of thousands of documents on the web about horse care, diseases, and training.

One thought on “Winter care of the horse

  • January 25, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    Thank you this is so helpful to me! 🙂 I have two horses and a pony and this is the info i really needed.


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