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Cold Weather Care for Your Horse

Author: Kristin O'Leary/Saturday, December 21, 2013/Categories: Horse

With winter arriving horse owners are facing different challenges in caring for their horses.  From feeding to water and shelter to exercise, our horses require special care to keep them healthy and maintain the level of conditioning we've worked to achieve throughout the year.  A recent article from  Dr. Young, a Equine Nutritionist from Purina Mills, shared some great tips to help us keep our horses healthy and happy this winter.


Many horse owners believe that when the weather is cold, horses need to be fed rations containing more corn, 
because they think of corn as a heating feed. However, corn and other cereal grains do not cause the horse to 
become warmer, they simply provide more energy (calories) to the horse. Hay, which contains more fiber than 
grain, provides more of a warming effect internally, as more heat is released during the digestion of fiber than of 
starch from grain. Therefore, horses are more able to maintain body heat if adequate hay is provided in the diet. 
Further, good quality hay is important during cool weather and winter months when pasture grasses are short or are 
not growing. Horses need at least 1% of their body weight per day in roughages to maintain a healthy GI tract, but 
2% or even more may be appropriate during cold weather, especially when the horse lives outdoors. 
Although grain does not provide as much of an internal warming effect as hay, it is often necessary to supplement a 
horse's winter ration with additional grain to boost calorie supplies. Cold temperatures increase the amount of 
calories a horse needs to maintain body weight, as well as support activity or production. Because a horse may 
digest feed less efficiently as the temperature drops below the horse's comfort zone, additional feed may be 
required to maintain body weight and condition. It is important to maintain the horse in a body condition score of 5-6 
(moderate to moderately fleshy) because a layer of fat under the skin provides insulation against the cold. Further, 
horses in moderately fleshy condition require less dietary energy for maintenance in cold weather than thin horses. 
In general, feeding an additional 1/4 lb of grain per 100 lb body weight to nonworking horses will provide adequate 
calories during cold, windy and wet weather. Working horses may require up to an additional 1/2 lb per 100 lb body 
weight, depending on workload, to maintain body weight during cold weather. Feeds such as Purina Ultium, 
Strategy, Race Ready or Omolene 200 may be especially helpful in these situations, since the added fat provides 
more calories than grain alone. 
Senior horses, which are unable to chew hay completely due to poor teeth and suffer from less efficient digestion 
and absorption of nutrients in the GI tract, need a feed specifically designed for them such as Equine Senior 
especially during winter months. Equine Senior contains enough roughage and added fat to ensure that the older 
horse can meet its fiber and calorie requirements without depending on long-stemmed hay or grass. 


Water should always be readily available to the horse. Snow is not a sufficient substitute for water, as the horse 
cannot physically eat enough snow to meet its water requirement. Ideally, the temperature of the available water 
should be between 45 degrees and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. If the water is too cold, the horse may drink less, 
thereby decreasing water and lubrication in the gut and increasing the chance of impaction-induced colic. Further, if 
the horse drinks less water, it may also eat less feed, resulting in loss of body weight and condition. Finally, if a 
horse is forced to drink very cold water, its energy requirement will increase, because more calories are required to 
warm the water to body temperature inside the digestive tract. 2 


Another consideration in cold weather horse care is housing or shelter. In general, even in cold climates, horses are 
happier and possibly healthier outdoors. Closed and heated barns are often inadequately ventilated. Horses living 
in poorly ventilated stables tend to develop respiratory diseases more often than horses maintained in pastures, 
even during cold weather. 
If given the opportunity, horses adjust to cold temperatures with little difficulty. A horse's comfort zone is very 
different from that of a person. In the absence of wind or moisture, horses tolerate temperatures down to near 0 
degrees Fahrenheit, and even colder if shelter is available. Horses living outside should have access to adequate 
shelter from wind, sleet and storms. Trees, brush, or an open-sided shed or stable can provide adequate shelter. In 
severe cold, horses will group together to share body heat. They may all take a brisk run to increase heat 
production, and then come back together to share the increased warmth. A long thick coat of hair is an excellent 
insulator and is the horse's first line of defense against cold temperatures. Horses that live outdoors during the 
winter should be allowed to grow a natural, full winter coat. Horses that live indoors will need adequate blankets in 
the cold weather to ensure that they do not get too cold. With sufficient thought and care by the horse owner, even 
horses that live outside in very cold climates will survive quite well during the cold winter months. 


Many horses are given the winter off from work due to the cold weather, the rider’s lack of time, or because they are 
given a break after a heavy show season. However, if horses are let off for too long, they may forget some of what 
they have been taught and lose the fitness level that they gained over the year of work. So, to prevent the winter 
slump, here are a few suggestions: 
1. Longe the horse once or twice a week. This not only gets the horse exercising, but it gives you an 
opportunity to brush, clean feet, check for injury, and evaluate the overall condition of the horse. 
2. If longeing is not possible and you have more than one horse, you can ride one and pony the second. This 
can be a good time saver and gets both horses working. 
3. If time is available and weather permits, ride your horse or horses whenever possible. Keep in mind, your 
horse is not in the same shape and does not have the stamina as when you were riding more in the warmer 
seasons, so you cannot work as hard nor expect as much from the horse. Be sure to cool the horse down 
completely after work to reduce the risk of pneumonia, cold, or colic. 
4. Another option is to check with local stables to see if their facilities are available to non-boarders. Often, 
stables allow outside horses and riders to use indoor and/or outdoor arenas for a fee. 
Winter may not be the easiest time of year for enjoying our horses, but with proper feed, water and shelter, and 
some exercise and conditioning, our horses will make it through comfortably and be ready to go again as soon as 
the weather allows. "

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