Meeting Your Horse’s Needs in the Winter Months
December 23, 2010
Cold weather brings extra responsibilities for horse
caregivers. Proper nutrition, access to water, adequate
shelter, regular hoof care, and, depending on circumstances, dental
attention, vaccinations, and parasite control are all winter
concerns for the equine enthusiast.
"Preparing your horse for winter should begin before the first
chilling winds hit," notes Dr. Glennon Mays, clinical associate
professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine &
Biomedical Sciences. "In late summer, horses living in
temperate climates should be allowed to slightly increase body
weight so that the extra flesh and fat will provide additional
insulation and heat reserve for the winter."
During the winter, feed and hay ration should be adjusted to
give your horse more energy for heat and warmth against the lower
temperatures, explains Mays. Your horse may need extra forage
and feed to develop more flesh and fat so that it does not shiver
as easily because shivering burns fat and muscle tissue.
"Quality forage should be fed all year and especially during the
winter months," says Mays. "The best food heat source for
your horse is extra hay because as your horse digests hay heat is
produced internally by bacterial fermentation. This warms
your horse from the inside. Higher protein legume hays
provide more energy and nutrients and make a good choice for winter
Forage and water complement your horse's diet. Without
water, your horse's body will not function properly, notes
Mays. As temperatures fall, horses tend to reduce their water
intake and reduced water intake combined with increased forage
intake may lead to a greater likelihood of impaction and
colic. You may want to consider providing warmed water during
the winter months since horses tend to increase water intake when
there is access to 45-65 F degree water. Also, providing
loose salt may encourage your horse to drink more.
With food and water needs met, now you can focus on protection
from harsh winter weather.
"The horse's winter coat is the first barrier from cold," notes
Mays. "The hair coat acts as an insulator and provides
warmth. A layer of air is trapped in the hair coat when a
horse fluffs its hair. An outside horse should be allowed to
grow a long hair coat and additionally, the ear and fetlock hair
should not be clipped during the winter months."
It should be noted that once the hair coat becomes wet, the hair
lies down and loses its insulating properties, for this reason your
horse needs to be able to escape winter's bitter winds, snow or
rain. A small, three-sided run-in shed is helpful. Be
sure that the back wall is to the prevailing wind and that water
does not run under the shed. Shelter for you pastured horse
will reduce feed bills and stress related illness, explains
"Horses housed in stalls also have special needs during the
winter months," says Mays. "Damp stalls, increased ammonia levels
and inadequate ventilation can contribute to poor air
quality. When the barn is closed during cold weather,
ammonia, dust and stale air can be trapped in the barn, so good
ventilation is crucial for your stall-housed horse. It is
best to open barn doors and have good air flow to reduce the
possibility of respiratory problems. Cleaning stalls daily to
remove manure and wet bedding greatly improves air quality in the
"Whether you are riding regularly or not, you should remove dirt
from your horse's hooves," explains Mays. "Hooves are still
growing in the winter months and appropriate maintenance is
Teeth should be checked for wear and floated if needed.
Sharp teeth edges can cut the tongue as well as prevent proper
chewing of forage and feed resulting in wasted or poorly utilized
nutrients, notes Mays.
"Horses may get undetected cuts during the winter so update any
needed vaccinations and make sure your horse is immunized against
tetanus," states Mays.
Even though nature may be dormant during the winter months,
parasites are not, especially in moderate climate environments,
says Mays. Internal and external parasites have a negative
influence on your horse's health. Tick and lice numbers can
increase in areas of confinement. Long, thick hair cover aids
in hiding these parasites, so regular grooming is necessary.
Shorter winter pastures may expose your horse to increased contact
with nematode larvae and thus increased internal parasites.
Attention to your horse's environment, as well as nutritional,
physical and medical needs will help your horse weather this winter
and be fit for riding come spring.
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