Caring for Your Horse in Winter

We can’t avoid it anymore: winter is here. Although many parts of the US and Europe enjoyed a rather mild start to the season, the harsh weather has finally arrived. And every horse owner, trainer and vet knows that horse care in winter takes special attention to detail. Wintertime brings health challenges and environmental hazards for our equine friends. So to help keep your horses healthy, we’ve compiled a few tips and reminders for caring for your horse this winter. 

WATER & FEED

Whether your horse lives inside or outside, it’s important to keep tabs on their water and caloric intake. By ensuring access to warm, clean water, horses are better protected from common winter ailments like impaction colic. And increasing calories with extra hay and feed helps horses maintain a healthy weight in the high calorie-burning winter months. 

KNOW THE SIGNS OF DEHYDRATION

Dehydration is a big concern in the winter, and it can creep up quickly. Check often for signs of dehydration and consider hand-filling water buckets to monitor intake. 

  • Dull and/or sunken looking eyes
  • Decreased appetite 
  • Decreased manure production 
  • Very dry manure 
  • Lethargy
You can check for dehydration using the pinch test
How to check if your horse is dehydrated

Aside from recognizing the signs of dehydration, you can also check for yourself using the following methods.

  • Check skin elasticity by pinching some skin on the horse’s neck. Upon release, the skin should return to a normal position within approximately two seconds.
  • Check capillary refill time by pressing your thumb firmly into your horse’s gums until the area turns white. Upon release, the gums in a hydrated horse will quickly return to their normal pink color, usually within two seconds.
  • While you’re checking the gums, take note of the moisture content in the horse’s mouth. Dry gums and teeth are a sign of dehydration.
INCREASE WATER INTAKE

There are a number of things you can do to increase your horse’s water intake in the winter. Ultimately, understanding the different recommend methods will ensure you’re keeping your horse happy and hydrated.

A very cold, icicle-covered horse is standing with its head down - licking the frozen ice covering the top of a water trough - trying to get a drink during a raging, blowing, windswept early February blizzard snow storm in a rural farming/ranching area of the western USA state of Utah. A few other horses are grazing on hay and straw in the background. The animals are confined inside a stable pen surrounded by a barbed wire and metal bar fence.
Horses prefer cold water to warm, but drink less volume

Before you decide which methods work best for your particular set up, take a moment to read the results of a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine about winter water consumption in horses. The findings will help you set up your winter water routine successfully.

Give your horse access to warm water, and warm water only

For example, many people believe horses don’t like very cold water. When in fact, according to the study, they prefer it to warmer water when given both options. The study found that “horses drank 40 percent more water when the water was heated. But only if that was the only source of water available.”

Ensure your horse gets the daily recommended amount of salt

Another thing to think about is salt intake. Horses who get enough salt are naturally encouraged to drink more water. But while many opt to simply toss a salt block in the stall, it’s not ideal. Who wants to lick a frozen salt block? Instead, distribute an ounce of salt per day across meals. This can be in the water (as long as you know how much volume they’re drinking), or mixed into a bran or beet pulp mash.

PROVIDE EXTRA CALORIES

Horses use a significant amount of calories in the winter just to stay warm. And many are still ridden and worked throughout the cold months, further increasing their need for extra calories.

Feed plenty of fresh, dry forage

Fresh, dry hay should be available at all times. Although research supports all-day feeding methods over the commonly seen twice-daily feeding schedule, the basic thing to remember is this: Regular and frequent access to high-quality forage helps horses get enough calories throughout the winter. This is especially important for those spending a lot of time outside where available grass—if any at all—can be unappetizingly frozen.

Horses that live ouside need constant access to forage
When forage isn’t enough

When deciding how to keep the pounds on, forage may not be the only answer. Equine veterinarian Liz Arbittier suggests in an article for Equus Magazine, “Older horses, or horses with significant dental disease that cannot eat hay productively, need to receive calories more frequently in a form that they can use, such as senior feeds.” 

In addition, many barns choose to supplement with a beet pulp or bran mash in the winter, especially if mixing in dietary supplements like vitamins, oils, flax seed, salt, etc. This also serves to add water to a horse’s diet, as bran and beet pulp need to be thoroughly soaked before feeding. However, ask your vet about the risks associated with feedstuffs like bran mash before adding it to your horse’s diet.

WARMTH & SHELTER

Horses are hearty animals. Despite the fact that we domesticated them some 5,000 years ago, they can still easily survive living outdoors “naked” in the winter. But this is only recommended if they are metabolically healthy, have a full winter coat, and have shelter from harsh elements like wind and rain.

PRACTICE RESPONSIBLE CLIPPING

Clipping is a regular practice for the majority of sport and performance horses who are working (i.e. sweating) all winter. On the other hand, some horses live outside full time and get the winters more or less off from heavy work. Whatever your scenario, knowing the ins and outs of proper clipping practices will help you keep your horse warm and healthy in the colder months.

A horse gets a trace clip

Consider a few things before deciding which type of clip, if any, to give your horse. Do they live outside full time? Are they regularly sweating due to exercise? Is someone available to check/change blankets daily? Are the blankets washed regularly? These and other factors should be considered before removing a horses’s natural protection from the elements. 

USE CLEAN, DRY BLANKETS

Right in line with responsible clipping is understanding proper blanketing practices. As one veterinary website points out, considerations such as breed, age, thinness, type of shelter, and whether or not the horse is clipped all need to be taken into account. 

If you want your horse to have an effective coat to brave the elements, be careful not to blanket them before the winter solstice. It might sound like hocus pocus, but the shortening days leading up to Dec. 22nd are when horses develop their thick winter coat, so blanketing too soon will inhibit this natural growth period.

Heavy hooded turnout blanket

If you aren’t sure which kind of blanket to use, we think SmartPak’s blanketing guide is the ultimate information source. Whatever your choice, blankets need to be properly fitted, removed and checked for damage daily, kept dry to avoid skin diseases like rain rot, and never be put on a wet horse.

FOOTING & FEET

Finally, winterizing also means paying extra attention to the safety of your horse’s environment and understanding how to keep their feet healthy. 

REMOVE ICE FROM PATHS AND PADDOCKS

Horses can easily handle just about any amount of snow, but ice is another story. The surfaces around the property where horses walk should be kept ice free at all times to prevent serious injury. If removing your horse from the paddocks and pastures until ice melts isn’t an option (i.e. the horse lives outside), the next best thing is to use sand, salt, or a salt alternative to combat icy footing.

Using sand for traction

Using sand on ice will increase traction, but be careful not to spread it around where the horse eats, as ingesting sand can increase the risk of impaction colic. 

Using salt to melt ice

Salt, on the other hand, will help melt the ice, but it must also be used sparingly. For one, you want to avoid encouraging horses to eat off the ground in search of salt so they don’t ingest other materials. Also, there’s not enough research about the effect of pure salt on horses’ hooves. Best to be cautious.

Using salt alternatives

Alternatives like ice melt can be harmful to animals and the runoff can negatively effect ecosystems in nearby rivers and streams. The best option is to use water softener salt pellets. But if you have a lot of snow and ice to deal with, you may need to check out other options as well. 

PROTECT HOOVES FROM THE ELEMENTS

Protecting horses hooves in winter means being mindful of terrain, weather conditions, footing, and shoeing/trimming schedules. In an article for Tufts, accredited professional farrier Eric John explains, “Whether it is a muddy winter and we have to control thrush, or we have cold, frozen ground and we have to address bruising, it’s going to depend on what type of winter you encounter.”

Avoid thrush

Thrush is a bacterial infection of the hoof sole’s soft tissues in the frog and surrounding grooves. Horses might get thrush for a number of reasons, including standing in wet, muddy, unsanitary conditions with no chance to dry out. To help combat this foul-smelling black rot (yeah, it’s gross), ensure your horse isn’t standing in manure and urine for long periods of time and that they have a chance to get out of the muck each day.

Shoes or no shoes?

Barefoot? Pads? Fronts only? These questions will usually be met with the same answer: It depends. The most important thing you can do is talk to your farrier first. They will help you weigh the options based on what your horse does in the winter, where he lives, and the state of his hoof health. Ultimately, understanding that caring for your horse’s hooves in winter is vital to overall hoof health for the rest of the year should indicate the importance of getting these questions answered.

Many horses go barefoot in the winter

DON’T FORGET YOUR FREE DOWNLOAD!

Horse care in winter means keeping your horse safe and healthy. But each horse and barn scenario is a little different, so be sure to talk to your vet and farrier about your horse’s specific needs. And don’t forget to click the button below to download this helpful infographic with vets’ top tips for winter horse care!


At Piavita, we want horses and their vets to be happy and healthy, so we offer up valuable information on health and wellness topics every month. If you have a question or suggestion, feel free to leave a comment or get in touch



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