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Equine Winter Care


By Nancy Brannon, Ph.D

Since the mid-south has been having extreme cold (for our area) in January, with temperatures in the teens and single digits, I consulted The University of Minnesota Horse Extension for their advice on winter horse care. Their information was compiled by Marcia Hathaway, PhD and Krishona Martinson, PhD, with contributing authors Chuck Clanton, PhD and Carey Williams, PhD, Rutgers University. Following are their recommendations for keeping your horse healthy and comfortable during the cold times.

Water Requirements

When horses consume winter feeds, water requirements may increase. Hay and grain typically contain less than 15% moisture, while pastures posses 60 to 80% moisture. [This pasture moisture decreases with frozen ground and lack of winter vegetation.]There are two common complications resulting from inadequate water consumption during cold weather: decreased feed intake and impaction colic. Even if quality feed is offered, horses will consume less if not drinking enough water. If less feed is consumed, horses might not have enough energy to tolerate the cold. Fecal contents must maintain adequate moisture levels. If fecal material becomes too dry, intestinal blockage or impaction may occur. A horse will not develop an impaction in one day, but can over several days to several weeks of inadequate water consumption.

Most adult horses weighing 1,000 pounds require a minimum of 10 to 12 gallons of water each day for their basic physiological needs. During winter months, water should be kept between 45 to 65°F to maximize consumption.  Previous research indicated that ponies increased their water consumption by approximately 40% each day when the water was warmed above freezing during cold weather. Increasing salt intake will also stimulate a horse to drink more; adult horses should consume one to two ounces of salt per day. Waterers should be cleaned regularly, with clean, fresh water always available, regardless of temperature. Snow or ice is not an adequate water source for horses!

Winter Feeding

Cold temperatures increase a horse's energy requirement as the need to maintain core body temperature increases. The temperature below which a horse needs additional energy to maintain body warmth is called the lower critical temperature. The lower critical temperature for a horse is estimated to be 41°F with a summer coat and 18°F with a winter coat (upper critical temperature is estimated at 86°F). However, the lower critical temperature can be affected by individual horse characteristics. A horse with short hair that is exposed to cold, wet weather will have a lower critical temperature higher than that of a horse with a thick hair coat and fat stores who is acclimated to cold weather. Another factor that can influence lower critical temperature is the size of the animal. Smaller animals have a greater surface area relative to body weight and can lose heat more rapidly than a larger animal.

Energy needs for a horse at maintenance increase about 1% for each degree below 18°F. For example, if the temperature is 0°F, a 1,000 pound idle, adult horse would need an approximately 2 additional pounds of forage daily. It is best to provide the extra energy as forage, rather than grain. Not as much heat is produced as a by-product of digestion, absorption, and utilization of grain as is produced from the microbial fermentation of forage. Most data suggest that the need for other nutrients does not change during cold weather.

During winter months, heavy hair coats can often hide weight loss. Regular body condition scoring is recommended to gauge weight and assess horse health.


Horses should have access to shelter from wind, sleet, and storms.  Stabling in a barn is desirable for escaping wind and precipitation. Free access to a stable or an open-sided shed works well, as do trees if a building is not available. Horses are most comfortable at temperatures between 18 and 59°F, depending on their hair coat. A general rule of thumb for run-in or open-front shed size is 240 square feet for 2 horses (i.e. 12 x 20 feet) and 60 square feet (i.e. an additional 10 x 6 feet) for each additional horse. These recommendations assume horses housed together get along well.


The horse’s hair coat acts as insulation by trapping air. If the hair is wet or full of mud, air is excluded, reducing its insulating value and increasing heat loss. As little as 0.1 inch of rain can cause cold stress by matting the hair and reducing its insulating value. It is important to keep the horse dry and sheltered from moisture.

If blanketing your horse, it is important that the blanket fits the horse. Horses can develop rub marks or sores where the straps secure the blanket if it fits improperly. If the horse is blanketed continuously, the blanket should be removed daily, inspected for damages, and repositioned. Make sure blankets are kept dry and do not put a blanket on a wet horse; wait until the horse is dry before blanketing.

Blanketing a horse is necessary to reduce the effects of cold or inclement weather when:
  • There is no shelter available during turnout periods and the temperatures drop below 5°F, or the wind chill is below 5°F
  • There is a chance the horse will become wet (not usually a problem with snow, but much more of a problem with rain, ice, and/or freezing rain)
  • The horse has had its winter coat clipped
  • The horse is very young or very old
  • The horse has not been acclimated to the cold
  • The horse has a body condition score of 3 or less
Hoof Care

Horse hooves generally grow more slowly in the winter. However, horses should still be trimmed every six to twelve weeks. The trimming or shoeing interval depends on each horse and the amount of hoof they grow. Horse hooves are very susceptible to developing “ice or snow balls” in their hooves during the winter. These balls are compacted ice or snow that make it difficult for the horse to walk, increase the chance of slipping and falls, and may put increased pressure on tendons and joints. Hooves should be picked clean daily, especially after a heavy snow.

Horses have better traction on snow and ice when left bare foot compared to being shod. If the horse must be shod, care should be taken to avoid slipping and compaction of snow and ice in the hoof. Sole bruising can be a problem in the winter, especially when working on uneven or frozen ground.

Acute Vs. Chronic Cold

According to Bob Coleman, extension horse specialist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment Services, horse owners should prepare for acute versus chronic cold. Acute cold is found in the cold snaps that last for a short period of time. Chronic cold is the cold that takes hold and stays with a region for a much longer duration. Sometimes an acute situation can prove to be more dangerous to animals, he said, because they aren't as used to the cold and owners might not be as well prepared as those in locations where intense cold is more typical and long lasting. Regardless of the type of cold present, horse owners should make sure animals have adequate shelter, water, dry bedding and feed, he said.

According to Coleman, digestion is one way horses help generate heat when it is cold. The average horse, with a lower activity level, should eat between 1.5 and 2 percent of its body weight in feed per day to maintain weight.“As a horse owner, making sure there is some extra hay available will help your horses get through the short-term cold snaps,” Coleman said. “Long or more chronic exposure to cold will need some other management changes to meet the horse's calorie needs. On the short-term, add more forage. But if forage supplies are limited, adding a concentrate feed to the diet may be needed.”

Coleman said it's also critically important that horses to have access to clean, unfrozen water to ensure that they eat adequate amounts of feed. Intake of water each day helps to reduce the risk of colic due to impaction. While this can be one of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of winter horse management, its importance can't be over-emphasized.

Horses need shelter to provide protection from the wind and any precipitation that may fall.

For horse owners who choose to use blankets, Coleman urged them to make sure those blankets are both wind and waterproof. A wet blanket equals a wet horse, and that wetness disrupts the coat's ability to insulate the animal and can quickly lead to cold stress.

All horse owners should take extra time to observe horses during cold snaps to make sure they are handling the temperatures well. This means checking on horses daily. Ones who are feeling the effects of the cold will need extra attention.

(Information from Mr. Coleman courtesy of Equestrian Professional)

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