There are five basic areas that we should keep in mind while caring for our horses during the winter: Feed requirements, Water requirements, Hair coat, Shelter requirements, and Hoof care.
Falling temperatures, wind and wet conditions cause tremendous demand on the horse’s body for heat production. And as with all warm-blooded animals, horses must maintain their body temperature to survive. The body does little to regulate heat generation and heat loss when the environmental temperatures are within ranges of the animal’s comfort zone or the “thermal neutral zone”. The thermal neutral zone for an adult horse is between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit depending on hair coat, body condition, wetness and wind chill. As environmental temperatures fall below the minimal temperature of the comfort zone or “critical temperature”, heat production is increased by the body speeding up the chemical reaction which produces heat. Thus, there is an increase for digestible energy requirement in the diet.
For each decrease in coldness of one degree Fahrenheit below the critical temperature, there is an increase in digestible energy requirements of one percent for body temperature maintenance. The best estimate of coldness is wind chill temperature. Please note that young and old horses’ and other “hard keepers” may need additional feed supplementation and extra protection as weather conditions deteriorate.
For example: If you are feeding an all hay diet to your horse and the temperature drops to 12 degrees Fahrenheit including wind chill. An average adult horse of 1,200 pounds would consume between 26-27 pounds of hay during temperatures above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. We will now have to adjust the feed consumption by 2.75 pounds of hay for each 10 degree drop in temperature below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Thus, we will need to add an additional 5.5 pounds of hay to the daily diet. Other scenarios are given in an Extension Extra2073, written by Dr. Rebecca Bott, entitled “Feeding Horses in the Winter”.
It is important to note that some horses may not be able to consume their energy needs in hay alone at this level, thus supplementing with a more energy dense feed, such as oats/corn may become necessary if long periods of cold and/or wet persist otherwise the horse will lose body condition. Please remember to make adjustments to your rations gradually over time and this is done by proper planning and constant weather monitoring.
Please do NOT assume that all hays are the same quality, you should have an analysis done on your hay to determine its quality. As always it is important to offer trace mineralized salt free choice.
Horses should be drinking a minimum of 8 to 12 gallons of water daily. Horses will tend to decrease their water consumption as it gets colder, and with an increase in forage consumption this can lead to a greater incidence of impaction and colic if inadequate water is not being consumed. Water should be maintained between 45 to 65 degrees F and all ice crystals should be removed. Forcing a horse to consume water by eating snow is counterproductive. Six times as much snow must be eaten to provide an equal amount of water. Furthermore, calories are used to melt the snow that should be used for body warmth.
The horse’s hair coat is their first defense against the cold. Horses that are to be maintained outside should be allowed to grow their winter coat. Hair along the fetlocks or ears should not be clipped if they are kept outside. Cold weather causes the hair to stand up, trapping and retaining body heat. Once the hair coat becomes wet, the hair lies down and loses its insulating ability and the horses’ daily energy demands will increase. In addition, a long fuzzy hair coat can be deceiving of a horse’s true body condition. Thus, the owner should check a horses’ body condition by feeling over the horse’s ribs, along with the typical visual inspection. Blanketing is an option to help provide extra protection for your horse during undesirable weather. However, daily checking of the blanket to make sure moisture has not gotten through the blanket to cause horse hair to become wet or if the horse has been sweating it will need to be removed for the hair and blanket to dry.
Although stalling is not necessary for all horses, some protection from the winter elements is desirable. Horses should be able to escape bitter winds and moisture. A small, three-sided shed or timberline may be sufficient shelter for pastured horses and will minimize the effects of strong winds and snow or ice.
Hoof maintenance should be kept on schedule during the winter. If you normally shoe your horse during the winter and it is typically a period of minimal riding, it is recommended to “pull” the shoes during the winter to prevent ice buildup under the foot. In addition, regular trimmings should be kept up to prevent cracks and breakage. However, care should be taken not to trim too closely to prevent bruised, sore feet from the frozen ground.
Horses are hardy animals that can withstand the challenges of low temperatures, or wet, or wind. However, when two or more of these factors are present, it decreases the horse’s ability to maintain itself. No matter how difficult the weather, providing feed, water, and shelter is critical for the maintenance and well being of your horse.
NebGuide, G96-1292-A, Winter Care for Horses, Kathy Anderson, Neb. Extension Horse Specialist, 1996.
SDSU, ExEx2073, Feeding Horses in the Winter, Rebecca Bott, SDSU Equine Specialist, 2011.