The cold weather is upon us and the coldest is still yet to come. Although horses are hearty animals, there are some things you can do for your horse to keep him more comfortable and healthy over the winter.
Offer warm water
Horses should always have unlimited access to clean water. Although you may have seen horses eat snow, snow is not an acceptable source of water in the winter. For one thing, your horse has to use his own calories to melt the snow, making it an energy drain on him. At minimum the water should not be frozen. Here in northeastern Wisconsin that usually means using heated water buckets or water tank heaters. Just make sure that all cords are secured so that curious lips and teeth can’t chew the cords and get a zap. If possible, offering warm water (bath water temperature) once daily can help encourage those finicky drinkers to get enough water. Not only is water important to keep your horse from getting generally dehydrated, dehydration can lead to colic in horses.
Offer more hay to increase calories
Horses burn extra calories in the winter to help keep their bodies warm. This means that in cold weather even horses who aren’t being ridden or worked will still need more feed. Many horses are fed more grain in the winter with the idea of giving more calories. However, it may be surprising to you that the best option to warm the horse is actually to feed more hay. Additional forage provides calories with the added bonus of generating heat as your horse ferments the fiber. During the most bitter days of winter free choice hay is best, unless your horse has a metabolic condition such as insulin resistance or PPID (aka Cushing’s Syndrome.)
Offer a roof over their head
Horses can grow very thick haircoats which provide excellent insulation even for the bitter cold we see in Wisconsin. That being said, the haircoat can only keep them warm if it is kept dry. Horses can do very well outside in the winter so long as they have a 3-sided shed where they can go to get out of the rain, snow, and wind. A critical factor is the size and number of the sheds in the pastures. There must be enough room for every horse to get into the shed. That means that the boss horse has to feel she has enough space that she doesn’t bully the most submissive horse in the herd out of the shed. Depending on your situation you’ll either need to control the turn out groups so that all horses get along well, or offer more than one shed in a pasture so the “outcasts” can have somewhere to escape the dominant horse.
Offer a dry place to relax
Making sure that lean-tos and sheds are dry can help horses tremendously as far as staying warm. Cold water and mud sap the heat out of the horse’s body. Providing deep, dry straw or shavings keeps mud off their legs and gives them a place to lie down.
Give them a breath of fresh air
It is very tempting to “batten down the hatches” in the barn to keep every last bit of warmth inside. This isn’t a good idea for 2 reasons. First, horses will breathe in more dust, mold, allergens, or even ammonia in the air since fresh air isn’t getting into the barn. Second, respiratory disease like influenza can pass more easily between horses if the ventilation is poor.
Have a properly fitting blanket as a back-up plan
Healthy horses can survive even Wisconsin’s bitter cold winters without a blanket provided the other tips in this article are followed. That being said, some equestrians who ride their horses during the winter with enough intensity to make the horse sweaty frequently choose to blanket and/or body clip their horses. There is nothing wrong with keeping the horse’s hair short or letting them become wooly mammoths during the winter. Just make a decision what your activity level will be BEFORE the bitter cold weather is here. Horses who will be kept with short coats to facilitate cooling down after exercise should be blanketed at least with a sheet or light blanket when the weather starts becoming cool (ie around 50 degrees.) At the coldest points of winter these horses will require a heavy blanket or even layered blankets. Horses who are kept outdoors 24/7 can be left without blankets. Clearly if you find your horse shivering and/or the wind chill is below -30F you should bring the horse inside or put a blanket on them. Make sure to remove the blanket when the cold snap breaks, or the horse can become sweaty under the blanket. Regardless of why you are blanketing your horse, blankets need to be removed and the hair groomed at least twice weekly. The horse’s hair has to be able to hold air near the horse’s skin in order to insulate them. This is why it is so important to take the blankets off and groom the hair so that it isn’t slicked down to their body. Also, it is easy for weight loss or injuries to go unnoticed if blankets are not removed on a regular basis. Of course, old, weak, malnourished or debilitated horses will have special feeding needs and likely need a blanket. Individual plans for those horses can be discussed with one of the Great Lakes veterinarians at your fall appointment.