Tips for a Healthier Horse During Cold Weather

Horse with natural warm winter coat.
Horse with natural warm winter coat. Soren Juhl

Newsdate: Friday, November 30, 2018, 9:00 am
Location: GILROY, California

With the winter holidays upon us, horse owners and caretakers need to be diligent in making sure the needs of horses in their care are met to insure maximum horse health.

Horse watching snow beginning to fall.

Horse watching snow beginning to fall

Cold weather and early darkness sometimes lead to neglect of basic horse needs, but daily diligence will help insure maximum horse health.
© 2016 by Sharon Morris

"Neglect is the worst thing that happens to the horse during the winter months. Most horses are turned out to pasture and we only see them in the dark at feeding time," according to Ann Swinker, Penn State Extension Equine Specialist.

Falling temperatures, wind and wet conditions cause a tremendous demand 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.

As with all warm-blooded animals, horses must maintain their body temperature to survive. The environmental temperature and the heat produced within the body determine the extent to which heat must be conserved. 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.”

As environmental temperatures fall below the minimal temperature of the comfort zone, or “critical temperature,” heat production is increased by the body speeding up chemical reactions, which produce heat.

The critical temperature can be used to estimate changes in a horse’s nutritional requirement relative to falling temperatures, cold winds and wet hair coats. Estimates for the lower critical temperature for horses are between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on hair coat, body condition, wetness and wind chill.

About the worst thing for a horse during the winter months is ice; most importantly, the ice that covers the watering trough or water bucket. Water for the horse during cold weather is too often overlooked. The water may freeze, making it inaccessible to the horse.

Mature horses need about 10 gallons of water a day. To keep the horse healthy during freezing weather owners should make sure an ample supply of fresh water is always available. Excessively cold water will decrease the horses' consumption of water.

Ideally, water should be maintained at a temperature of 40 degrees F. When the horse drinks less water, feed intake will decrease. A reduction in feed intake results in less energy being available to maintain body temperature and body weight during the cold months. Reduced feed and water intake could lead to colic and an impacted intestinal tract in the horse.

Most nutritional needs of the horse do not change during the winter season. Vitamin, mineral and protein requirements will still depend upon the horse's age and physiological status and not on the time of year. The horse should be fed according to body condition.

Thin horses should be fed some supplemental grain in addition to good quality hay to assure enough energy to produce warmth, while a fat horse will require little or no increase from their fall diet. Most mature horses that are idle and in good flesh can survive the winter quite well on good quality hay and ample clean water.

Contrary to popular belief corn does not produce heat it produces energy that can later be converted to heat; it is the digestion of the hay that quickly produces the heat. However, for the thin horse, corn will provide the energy needed to keep the horse in good body condition and provides the energy needed for work.

Equine Winter Checklist:

  • Water availability: Stock tank de icer - Crack ice and remove large pieces from top of trough, twice daily
  • Nutrition: Good quality forage, brome or prairie hay (2% of body weight daily). Concentrate grain for horses that lose condition in the cold weather - (0.5% body weight daily)
  • Prophylaxis from infectious disease: Go to the AAEP website to review all vaccine protocols. Booster vaccinate for EIV and EHV-1/4 in the fall Protect horses from the elements with blanket, shelter and/or stabling.

About the Author

Flossie Sellers

Author picture

As an animal lover since childhood, Flossie was delighted when Mark, the CEO and developer of EquiMed asked her to join his team of contributors.

She enrolled in My Horse University at Michigan State and completed a number of courses in everything related to horse health, nutrition, diseases and conditions, medications, hoof and dental care, barn safety, and first aid.

Staying  up-to-date on the latest developments in horse care and equine health is now a habit, and she enjoys sharing a wealth of information with horse owners everywhere..