How to

22 November 2016

Winter Health Care for Horses

Owning a horse is a huge commitment, in terms of both time and money. They require a lot of exercise, regular grooming and a large amount of food, but at least in the summer you get some decidedly more obvious rewards for your efforts than during the winter months. Winter is a time for cuddling up in the warmth, not riding around snow-covered fields, but if you want to be able to enjoy your equine friend for years to come, you need to take proper care of them during the winter.

Diet & Nutrition

As temperatures begin to drop, your horse will require a substantial amount of extra food in order to maintain a healthy core body temperature. ‘Lower critical temperature’ is defined as the temperature below which horses will require extra nutrition to maintain body heat; this is estimated at around 41°F with a summer coat and 18°F with a winter coat.

The exact requirements in terms of additional feed with vary depending on the individual horses characteristics, so these figures should only be used as a rough guide. Bear in mind that smaller animals and those with shorter hair will lose body heat at an accelerated rate, and will likely need more food to compensate.

Be wary; heavier coats of hair during the winter months can sometimes hide dangerous levels of weight loss. Regular body condition scoring is crucial in maintaining your horse’s health.

In terms of water requirements, the average adult horse weighing around 1,000 pounds will require at least 10-12 gallons of water per day, which should be kept between 45-65°F in order to maximise consumption; do not allow the water to freeze.

Failing to ensure that your horse is consuming enough water can lead to a couple of serious health concerns. Firstly, a lower water intake results in a lower feed intake which, apart from the obvious, year-round problems that causes, will also mean that your horse lacks the required energy to withstand the cold conditions. Secondly, a lack of water content in faecal matter can lead to intestinal blockage or impaction.

Shelter & Blanketing

While it is generally advised to leave horses outside during the winter months, you still must ensure that you provide adequate shelter in the form of free access to a stable or open-sided shed. Without the presence of wind and moisture, horses can tolerate a surprisingly low temperature of 0°F, but if given access to shelter they are more than happy as temperatures drop closer to -40°F; they are however most confortable at temperatures of approximately 18-59°F, although this will of course vary depending on the thickness of their coat.

On the subject of blanketing a horse there is still some debate. Sandra Seabrook of Purpose Farm, which specialises in the year round pasture-based care of horses, donkeys & ponies, tells TWC News, “They don't actually need to have a blanket at all in winter unless they are being ridden regularly or actually clipped”, although there does seem to be a few exceptions to this rule.

You should consider blanketing your horse if;
  • The horse’s winter coat has been clipped
  • Temperature or wind chills drops below 5°F and no shelter is available
  • There is a chance of the horse becoming wet, typically via rainfall
  • The horse is either very young or very old
  • The horse has recently been relocated from a warmer climate
  • The horse has a body condition score of 3 or less

Grooming & Exercise

Regular exercise during winter is vital in maintaining a horse’s health, as long periods of confinement can lead to complications such as lower-leg edema. You should make an effort to ride your horse as often as possible; if anything they will require more exercise during winter than they would in summer. Do however take care in deep snow or icy areas as these can both cause serious injury to both horse and rider, with the horse’s tendons taking particular strain.

You should keep the clipping of the winter coat to a minimum, but that doesn’t mean that grooming should cease entirely. One area often unfortunately neglected is the hooves; which do grow at a slower rate in winter but still require trimming every 6-12 weeks. Compacted balls of snow and ice can also become lodged in the hoof causing difficulty walking and an increased likelihood of a fall or slip. To avoid this issue, hooves should be picked clean daily.

In snowy or icy conditions, horses actually get better grip and traction from a bare hoof as compared to being shod, so maybe avoid the shoe in winter, or invest in snow pads for increased traction.

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.