Winter Care for Your Horse
Assessing Horses Condition


Are you ready for another winter? Is your horse?

Another summer is winding to an end and horse owners need to make management plans for the cooler seasons ahead. For horses, cold weather does not mean coming in from the cold, but being assisted to withstand the cold as comfortably and healthy as possible. However, horses have special needs during the cold weather to assure they will stay healthy and in good condition. Horses are very tolerant of cold conditions; in fact, horses tend to be far more stressed by heat than by cold. From the horse owner's standpoint, winter management gets very basic: routine health care, feed, water, and shelter. Any winter, be it mild or severe, will be easier to deal with if you have prepared in advance.

 Back TO Top Assessing The Horses Condition:

For a horse to be an "easy keeper" during the winter he needs to be free of parasites, in good flesh, and properly immunized going into the winter.  The cost of deworming, veterinarian checkups, and immunizations will more than pay for themselves in reduced feed costs through the stressful winter months. Work with your vet to set up a health program for each of your horses and stick with it.

We tend to think that if we are cold, our horses must be cold. Not necessarily so. Preconditioning horses before the onset of cold temperatures helps to reduce the effect of cold weather on the horse an will reduce his nutritional needs to maintain weight.  A horse shouldn't lose weight in the winter. In fact, a little extra layer of fat to fend off the cold won't hurt.  Fat cover acts as an insulator and provides energy reserves during stress. Altering your feeding program for the upcoming winter by providing some extra calories will allow horses to lay down an insulating layer of fat under the skin.

The horses winter coat is a horse's first defense from the cold. When allowed to grow, a horse's natural hair coat acts as a very effective thermal blanket, it increases both in length and density as the days grow shorter. A Horses  winter coat is also naturally greasy, which helps it repel snow, ice, and sleet. A heavy winter hair coat  a tremendous insulator and provides as much warmth as the best blankets. Horses that are to be maintained outside should be allowed to grow a long hair coat, plus the hair within the ears and around the fetlocks should not be clipped throughout the winter months. Horses  have the ability to fluff out their coats in cold weather, thereby trapping a layer of air in the coat which provides them an insulating layer. Once the hair coat becomes wet, the hair lies down and loses its insulating ability. 

Stabled horses may need blanketing when they're turned out during the day, but the best blanket for an outside horse is his own full winter coat. If you do blanket your horse, make sure you take it off and brush him often. Also, realize that a blanket that is not warm enough is worse than no blanket at all.  A blanket keeps the coat flat again causing loss of insulating ability.

The most accurate assessment of body condition is done through feeling the condition over the horse's ribs, plus visual inspection of overall condition. A thick winter coat can easily hide weight loss so it's important to use hands as well as eyes to monitor winter weight. Your horse should be at such a weight that  you cannot see the ribs but can feel them if you run your ringers over the rib cage applying slight pressure. 

Horses add body fat from front to rear and top to bottom. Evaluate their necks, withers, covering over their rib cages and croups, and around their tailheads for deposition of fat. It is really important that you feel your horses in winter due to their heavier winter haircoat. Often, one cannot accurately evaluate a horse's body condition by only visual appraisal. It is important to body condition score your horse each month in winter.By the time you see that the horse is getting thinner, it's too late and it may be difficult for horses to increase body condition during extremely cold weather. During long periods of  freezing temperatures, most horses will experience some loss of body condition, no matter how well they are fed.

A horse's ears are said to be a good indicator of whether or not he is cold - cold ears mean a cold horse. Also watch to see if your horse is shivering, a warm blooded animal shivers to produce more body heat, if they are shivering, they are not warm enough.

 Back TO Top As with all warm-blooded animals, horses must maintain their body temperature to survive. The temperature, wind chill factor, wetness, hair coat and the heat produced within the body determine the extent to which heat must be conserved. As environmental temperatures fall below the individual horses comfort zone,  heat production is increased by the body by speeding up chemical reactions which produce heat.
Table I. Estimated Lower Critical Temperature For Horses In Moderate Body Condition
Hair Coat Lower critical 
Wet or short 60
Moderate 50
Heavy 30
Table II. Estimated Feed Energy Increase At Different Magnitudes Of Cold Below The Lower Critical Temperature Of Mature Horses
Difference in F below
Critical temperature
Digestible Energy
Increase (Mcals/days)
Feed Intake
Increase¹ (lbs/day)
0 0 0
10 2 2
20 4 4
30 6 6
40 8 8
¹Assuming an energy density of 1.0 Mcal/lb, which is typical of many hays.
Table III. Effect Of Wind And Rain On Digest Energy Requirement For Horses At Maintenance
Average Temperature   Additional Mcal/d Additional Hay
32° F 10-15 mph wind 4-8 Mcal/day 4-8#/day
32° F rain 6 Mcal/day 6#/day
32° F rain and wind 10-14 Mcal/day* 10-14#/day
*May not be able to consume enough hay to meet requirements.

The combination of a cold wind and rain or sleet is probably the worst case scenario for a horse. Under those conditions, without shelter, he can quickly become chilled. Older horses, in particular (from their late teens on up), tend to have difficulty maintaining their internal temperatures in such circumstances. The effects of falling temperatures, wind and wet conditions will put a enormous requirement on the horse's body for heat production. How much body condition a horse loses depends on the severity and duration of the cold season and the amount of energy the horse receives from its feed.


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Know in advance what you are going to feed during the winter months. When first frost kills your summer pasture is not the time to decide on a winter feeding program and it can be detrimental to your horse. Chances are the grass that he was feeding on was devoid in nutrient value and he was losing body condition. With less time to acclimate your horse to new feed sources, plus a declining body condition, you have lost valuable time to prepare your horse for more extreme weather.

When temperatures dip, the best heat source for your horse is extra hay. During the cold weather it is best to increase the amount of hay, not concentrated feeds. Hay is digested in the cecum and colon which results in heat production by bacterial fermentation. On the other hand, concentrated feed is primarily digested in the small intestine in a short amount of time and does not produce much heat. This means a greater amount of heat is produced through the utilization of hay than utilization of grain.  This makes hay a more desirable way to meet a horses' elevated energy requirements. Supplementation with grain is only necessary if horses have difficulty in maintaining body condition. Therefore, horses maintained in extremely cold conditions for an extended period, with minimal shelter may need grain supplementation to meet their energy demands.

The first step to winterizing for your horse is knowing the nutrient value of your hay. Your local county Extension office can assist you in getting your hay tested. The test will take several weeks to get the results back, so plan ahead. While you are waiting on your hay sample, find out the nutritional requirements of your horse. There are nutritional tables that determine equine nutritional requirements that can found in reference books, or in some cases, your feed store may have a copy. The nutritional requirements are based on age, size, reproductive stage (mares), and amount of work.

When your hay sample results are returned, compare the nutrient value of your hay to the nutrient requirements of your horse(s).  Every horse should be fed as an individual. You will need to calculate your horses' weight to determine his feeding needs. Once you have your horse's weight, there's a simple rule of thumb you can use to determine how much feed your horse should be getting each day. The total weight of feed per day should be between 1.5% and 3.0% of your horse's body weight.

Weight Calculator

Extra calories are particularly important for older horses in winter,  recommendations are that horses on the high side of 20 years be fed at least 120% of the National Research Council's recommendations for daily intake 
( from 1.5% to 3.0% of the horse's body weight).
Many adult horses can maintain body condition on a complete diet of a good quality hay with access to free choice trace mineralized salt. Adult horses should consume between 1.5 and 2 percent of their body weight in hay or a 1,000 lb. horse will eat 15 to 20 lb. of hay per day. Supplementation with grain is only necessary if horses have difficulty in maintaining body condition. Therefore, horses maintained in extremely cold conditions for an extended period, with minimal shelter may need grain supplementation to meet their energy demands. In cases where a combination of hay and grain will be required to meet the nutritional needs of the horse, savings may be realized without affecting the horse if you can utilize more of the cheaper hay and less of the more expensive grain. Make sure that vitamin and mineral requirements are met as well. Get in enough good hay to last through until next year's hay crop. To calculate how much you need, figure on half a square (50 LB) bale per horse per day then add some to cover for the occasional moldy bale or extra cold weather.

Providing more hay is a fairly simple; just feed an extra flake or two per meal, and monitor how much your horse eats and how well he maintains his weight.  Since a horses' tendency is to be wasteful and trample the hay  into the ground, you'll need to allow at least 25% extra for wastage. With horses fed in groups make sure each get their fair share of hay, space the piles out of kicking distance and put out one ot two more piles than the number of horses. That way, when the boss horse keeps thinking another pile looks better than the one she's presently eating from, the other horses can move to new piles too. This is one instance when you might want to seek out hay with a slightly higher legume content than grass, even for your mature horses. Higher protein legume hays are also higher in energy and nutrients, and that bit of extra energy might be a boon when temperatures plunge. 

Feed only clean hay , discard any that shows signs of moldiness (generally noticeable as white matted or fuzzy patches within a flake), smells musty, or raises clouds of particles when dropped to the floor from a height of a few feet. 

All horses should have access to a trace mineralized salt block.

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Water Requirements

Without water, nothing in your horse's body will function. Horses will often reduce their water intake as temperatures fall. This reduced water intake, combined with increased forage consumption can lead to a greater incidence of impaction and colic. Ideally, water should be warmed so that the horse will consume adequate amounts. Water should be available at all times. Water should be maintained between 45 and 65 degrees F and any ice crystals should be removed. If you are in a area that has regular freezing, check the water supply twice daily  as horses will drink eight to 12 gallons a day.

A basketball or soccer ball floating in the water trough will keep it from completely freezing over. To help prevent freeze up in the water trough, place it in the sunniest spot available, and bank dirt around its sides to help insulate it. You might want to try covering part of the top with plywood, leaving a small area free for drinking. However, if you get very hard freezes you may want to invest in one of the various water heaters that are on the market. If you use float heaters, automatic waterers, or heated water buckets, be sure to check them to insure the heater is not shorting out and shocking the water. Allow plenty of space between water tanks and fences. If the whole herd drinks at the same time, there's often some scuffling and butting around the tank, and horses might be pushed through the fence.

Some people believe horses can get by on snow. "Get by" they might, but horses require a lot of water to digest dry feed.  Forcing a horse to produce moisture 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.

Whenever possible, offer your horse warm water at a temperature of about 45-65° F. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that a horse's water intake in winter increases dramatically if he has access to warm water.  Recent research has shown a 40 percent increase in water intake when horses are offered warm water on wintery days.

  Check the Hydration of Your Horse
Measure Capillary Refill Time
1. Use both hands to part the horse's lips and expose the gums.
2. Press gently and briefly on the gum of the upper jaw with the index finger or thumb of one hand. This will force the blood from the capillaries, "blanching" the gum.
3. Watch and count how long it takes for the gum to return to its natural pink color after removing your finger. If the count is longer than 2 seconds, your horse may be dehydrated or have a circulatory problem.
4. Take this measurement regularly to get an idea of what's normal for your horse.
Check Skin Turgor
5. Pinch the skin on the horse's neck in front of the shoulder, using your thumb and forefinger.
6. Note whether the skin snaps back to its normal position quickly or responds slowly and remains "tented up." A slow response can indicate dehydration.
7. Check skin turgor regularly to get an idea of what's normal for your horse. Individuals can show variation in this test.
Tip: An older horse may have less elastic skin that returns slowly to its normal position even if the horse is well hydrated.
Assess Eyes and Gums
8. Learn what your horse's eyes and gums normally look like. They should appear moist and shiny, not dry.
9. Inspect your horse's gums and eyes frequently.
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Shelter Requirements

The Pastured Horse

Stalling is not necessary for all horses but protection from the winter elements is necessary. Horses acclimate to winter conditions extremely well but need to be able to escape the bitter winds and moisture. A small, three sided run in shed or timberline to provide escape from strong winds and snow or ice is often all that is necessary for pastured horses. Horses provided shelter will require less feed, can more easily maintain body weight and are less stressed. These effects make the cost of sheds and windbreaks more attractive by reducing feed bills and reducing stress related sickness.

If a three sided shed is used, the open side of the shed should be opposite the prevailing wind. Each mature horse should have at least 80 square feet. The back wall should be 9' high, and the opening needs to be 11-12' tall. A 4-6' overhang will help prevent rain and snow from blowing into the shed. Sheds should be located so they have adequate drainage. Make sure that the entrance is big enough so that any bullies in the herd do not get an opportunity to corner the other horses.  If your horse will have access to a runin shed, it should be cleaned out prior to winter really setting in. Remove old bedding and manure, and rebed the shed with 4" to 8" inches of fresh bedding.

Check the drainage to be sure that water will not run into the shed. Make sure there are no loose boards or nails in the shed. Horses are active and prone to injuries.

Observe the horses for any indication of ill health or abnormalities, while they are turned out on a regular basis. A shiny, glossy hair coat is one of the best indicators of a healthy horse. Hair coat is reflective of good nutrition and health. When in a pasture, lot, or paddock horses normally try to stay in a group--a horse off to itself may be hurt or ill. Horses normally have firm manure balls that are not loose and watery and do not contain undigested grains, etc. Urine is normally wheat-straw colored and not cloudy or dark red.

Care should be taken when leaving younger, less experienced horses on winter pasture. Running an older horse as a "baby sitter" can help teach the youngsters how to find shelter, food and water. Additionally, the "baby sitter" often has a calming effect on the young herd and reduces the chances of them running through fences and such. 

Check your fence line periodically during the winter to ensure that downed trees or other hazards have not opened sections of your fencing. Also in the case of electric fencing, the level of the snow can short out a fence line. Hungry animals are more apt to challenge a fence than well fed ones. The solution is to arrange for more feed, not build a fortress fence.

The Stalled Horse

Horse owners will have much less labor, and at times healthier horses if they are turned out during the winter months. Many horses wintered in closed barns develop respiratory problems. Damp stalls, ammonia build up, and poor ventilation all contribute to respiratory problems. When the barn is closed up because of rain or cold weather, ammonia, dust, and stale air are trapped in the barn.  Good ventilation is crucial. Research indicates that most of the ammonia and dust are below the level of 2 to 3 feet. This makes air quality a big problem for young horses. Therefore, it is important to have good ventilation and air flow through the barn to maintain good air quality and minimize respiratory problems.  Horses tolerate a wide range of temperatures. In an unheated building with low air movement, the only horses likely to experience cold stress are new born foals or young stock whose metabolic rates are low because of disease or malnutrition.

There are three natural forces of ventilation for stables:

1) The Stack effect, i.e. warm air rising off the horse will rise up and leave the stable drawing fresh air in.
2) Aspiration - wind blowing across the top of a stable will help to draw stale air out.
3) Perflation - wind blowing from side to side and end to end of a building will aid ventilation.

It is critical to ensure thorough movement of air in a stable. The air should be allowed entracne at a low level, then be drawn out the top of the barn. Drafts at the level of a horses body trunk should be avoided, as these can result in chills.

Several management practices can assist in improving the air quality in a barn. 

  • First, the barn should be designed where the prevailing wind can move through the barn. Even though it may be cold outside, it is better to open the barn doors and have good air flow than to reduce air quality and increase the probability of respiratory problems. 
  • Second, the barn should be designed to have good air flow through vents on the sides and in the roof to maintain air flow when barn doors are closed. 
  • Third, cleaning stalls daily and removing manure and wet bedding greatly improves the quality of the air. 
  • A fourth suggestion is to design the bottom of the stall to allow good air flow at ground level. Slatted boards at the bottom of the stall up to 4 to 5 feet are recommended to allow air flow at ground level. Wire panels or metal bars are normally recommended for the upper half of the stall.

Preparing Your Barn

Preparing your barn for winter depends on where you live. In the South, with its mild winters, there will not be much need for expensive heating systems and heated water tanks. In the North, however, where areas may be snowed in for a length of time, it is essential to ensure that your barn is self sufficient and capable of riding out winter's worst.

  • Make sure that you have enough feed, bedding and hay and that they are stored in a dry place with feed in rodent proof containers.
  • Check your water supply. Insulate above ground piping with wrap around insulation available most hardware stores. For interior buckets that freeze overnight;
    • various insulating devices are available that your water buckets fit down inside. 
    • heating elements that hook over the side of the bucket are available. 
  • Resist the temptation to close every window and door in the barn. It's better to put an extra blanket on if necessary than to keep horses in a completely closed barn. 
  • Have your electrical wiring checked over. You will use the interior lighting more often in winter, it's best to avert a fire hazard.
 Back TO Top Health Care:
  • Maintain a good dental program and parasite control program. Teeth should be checked for wear and floated if needed. Sharp edges can cut the tongue and prevent proper chewing which results in wasted feed and poor feed utilization. Normal healthy horses chew evenly with both sides of

  • their mouth and show predictable enthusiasm for eating.
  • Mucous Membrane Color

  • The membranes of the horse's gums and lip should be a healthy pink color. Pale white, yellow, or deep purple colors are all cause for concern.
  • Legs should be kept clean. Mud and snow will accumulate on long hair (feathers) of the fetlock and cannon. Keep them clean and remove caked mud, snow, and manure. Soreness and ulceration can develop if cleanliness is not maintained.
  • Hoof care must be kept on schedule throughout the winter. Shoes should be pulled unless you plan to ride on rough surfaces. Care should be taken not to trim horses too closely to prevent bruised, sore feet from the frozen ground.
  • In winter weather, the horse should be cooled out slowly by rubbing down and walking. A horse may need to be walked for up to 45 minutes after an intense workout. 
  • Impaction colic becomes more prevalent during cold weather. This normally occurs because the horse does not consume an adequate amount of water during cold weather and does not have an adequate amount of water in his digestive tract for digestion. Water should be warmed so that the horse will consume adequate amounts. 
  • Wet conditions can cause the outer covering of the foot  to deteriorate, which causes cracking and splitting. Mud and sand can work their way into the cracks, causing the hoof to spread even further. Every effort should be made to keep the hoof wall intact. This can be done by keeping the hoof as dry as possible and applying hoof dressing regularly. Hoof dressing has waterproofing properties that keeps water from soaking into the foot. 
  • Update any need vacinations, make sure the horse has been immunized against tetanus. Horses often get undetected cuts in the winter that are an ideal environment for the tetanus microorganism.
Create and maintain a proper winter management plan for your horses and they'll respond by coming out of winter fit and ready for the new year.
© Beverly J Whittington 2000