Dealing with Winter Weather Woes
Horse keeping can become more difficult with the challenges that cold weather brings, but knowing what to expect and how to deal with it gives you an advantage.
Make sure your horses are going into winter in the best physical condition possible. Being prepared ahead of time goes a long way when it comes to handling the challenges of winter weather.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside!
Temperature has less to do with how horses handle cold weather than you might imagine. It doesn't usually ever get “too cold,” so long as the horse is healthy, has a good hair coat and is not subjected to wet conditions. Hot, humid weather is actually much harder on horses than cold temperatures.
“Providing the horse has had an opportunity to adapt, acclimate and grow some hair, they’re fine outside in cold weather so long as they’re not wet,” states Bob Coleman, Ph. D., Extension Horse Specialist at the University of Kentucky.
What you have to guard against is anything that takes away the insulating qualities of the hair coat and causes the horse to be chilled, Coleman cautions. This can include strong wind, rain, a wet snow or the horse running around enough to get sweaty.
“Shelter from the wind is important,” he adds. “A roof over it so they can stay dry is a bonus, but the minimum should be a break from the wind. This could be from a thick grove of trees, a wind fence, or a run-in shed. Even if horses are coming into the barn at night, ideally they should have some kind of wind protection out in the pasture during the day.”
Some owners rely on blankets and they can be especially helpful if a horse has to travel to a cold climate from a warm one during the dead of winter. Blanketing can also help the transition when a horse is purchased during the winter and has been body clipped or blanketed previously to maintain a slick coat. In this case, the horse can’t be expected to fend for himself. Once you start blanketing for the winter, you should continue, as the horse won't likely grow thick enough hair for adequate protection on his own.
FIGHTING THE COLD ALL DAY IS PHYSICALLY DEMANDING, WHICH IS WHY HORSES SHOULD BE IN PRIME PHYSICAL CONDITION WHEN COLD WEATHER HITS.“I’m not a big fan of blanketing if a horse grows enough hair,” says Coleman. “You need to be careful about turning horses out in a heavy blanket because they can get warm under the blanket during day and start sweating. Then if you don’t get them inside before the sun goes down, they can get chilled.”
If you do use blankets, use an appropriate weight and warmth for the day’s weather to avoid such problems.
Fighting the cold all day is physically demanding, which is why horses should be in prime physical condition when cold weather hits. “They don’t need to get fat, but they need to go into winter in good body condition,” Coleman says. “They should be a minimum of a ”6” on the body score chart.”
A score of “6” is “moderately fleshy” or average. The horse may have a slight crease along the back and the ribs can be felt, but not seen. There should be a little fat along the withers, behind the shoulders and along the neck, as well as soft fat around the tail head.
Older horses become a challenge come winter because they tend not to carry enough body condition. A horse might have long hair, but Coleman cautions that this doesn’t equal warm hair. “It needs to be a thick, dense, healthy hair coat. Quite often horses that have really long hair tend not to carry much body condition. You can’t just tell by looking at the horse; you need to get your hands on them and actually feel their body condition.”
Be aware that foals and young horses won’t have the body fat stores that adult horses can have, so you need to be sure they don’t get chilled. Making sure horses have enough to eat during cold weather, particularly good quality forage, is essential, Coleman notes.
When it’s raining and cold, a horse will lose body temperature much more quickly than when it’s just cold. Realize that if a horse is shivering, he is cold. You don't want to ignore this.
Keep Them Drinking
The horse’s body is composed of approximately 70% water and water intake is crucial, even during cold weather. Water intake is influenced by weather and ration. For example, a horse eating an all-hay diet will typically drink more water than a horse receiving both grain and hay. On average, a horse will drink about one gallon per 100 pounds of body weight for maintenance, but this can vary from horse to horse, especially if the horse is working or being exercised regularly.
“Make sure you’re feeding good hay,” says Coleman. “Sometimes with abrupt weather changes, horses can change their eating and drinking habits. The bottom line to winter horse health care is paying attention to detail.”
Warming the water slightly will encourage consumption, as will adding electrolytes to the feed.
“We know the temperature of water affects how much a horse will drink, so you certainly want to take the chill off,” notes Coleman.
Water needn’t be overly warm. A Michigan State University study revealed that horses voluntarily drank more within the first hour after exercise when offered water at near ambient temperature (about 68 degrees Fahrenheit). Testing showed that offering progressively colder water decreased the total volume of fluid consumed. Horses can be encouraged to drink more water by heating the water to between 50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Adding a little loose salt to the grain ration will encourage drinking,” says Coleman.
While horses will often eat snow, they should never be expected to rely on snow alone to meet their water requirements. It contains a low amount of water and eating snow can actually lower a horse's body temperature--something you don't want to happen during cold weather.
There are several ways to keep water from freezing when watering horses, including heated buckets, stock tank heaters and thermostatically-controlled hoses.
“If you’re plugging in bucket heaters, your electric system needs to be equipped to handle it. Otherwise, you can run into the same problem you face plugging in too many fans in the summer,” he adds. “Be sure to use heavy-duty, properly grounded cords that can carry the load and also are kept safely out of reach of the horses.”
If the heating device isn’t built-in, it must be adequately protected so the horses can’t touch it. Make sure any electrical equipment is properly grounded and that horses can’t come in contact with any electrical cords or devices, and check regularly to make sure heaters are working.
For horses at pasture, Coleman emphasizes the importance of checking water sources every day, even when automatic waterers are equipped with a heating element.
“This is the time to really pay attention and watch your horses, as much as you’d prefer to be inside where it’s warm. You have to be diligent and check your water sources every day to make sure horses can get to water.”
Ponds and/or creeks in the horse pasture can pose a danger in the winter. If horses have ready access to another reliable water source, they are not as likely to get in trouble trying to drink from a frozen pond. But Coleman notes that such natural water bodies may need to be fenced off to limit access for safety’s sake.
Icy conditions can present more problems than snow. For example, icy walkways can pose problems for both horses and humans. Even gravel and rough textured surfaces can become slick and dangerous if they have gotten wet and the temperature then drops below freezing.
“It’s important to have a plan for dealing with ice wherever you’ll be walking, driving and handling horses, but you also want to be aware of the environment,” says Coleman. “If you use commercial deicing materials, look at the label to see if it’s environmentally friendly.”
Coleman recommends using sand or kitty litter for deicing, as it’s highly effective and won’t damage grass or landscape plants the way some deicing products can.
“If you keep the sand or kitty litter inside a warm building, it will stick to the ice even better,” he adds. “Even if you’ve put it out, if the weather warms up and then the area freezes over again, you need to check to see if the grit is still exposed and effective.”
Pay Attention to Hooves
Uneven frozen ground can bruise a horse’s sole, while snow and ice can ball up in the hoof, particularly when horses are shod. Horse owners who live in climates that see a good deal of snow and ice may want to ask their farriers about rim snow pads. These pads don’t cover the entire sole, but extend slightly beyond the edge of the shoe, and work to force snow out, rather than letting it pack in the sole.
Snow will often “ball up” in the soles of shod horses, but at times even barefoot horses can have frozen snow packed in their feet. Be sure to pick feet out daily.
Winter Weather Tip #1: Check Body Condition Before Winter Hits
Fighting the cold all day is physically demanding. Make sure your horse has a body condition score of at least "6" going into winter. The horse may have a slight crease along the back and the ribs can be felt, but not seen. There should be a little fat along the withers, behind the shoulders and along the neck, as well as soft fat around the tail head.
Winter Weather Tip #2: Pay Close Attention to Feet in Snowy Conditions
Snow will often “ball up” in the soles of shod horses, but at times even barefoot horses can have frozen snow packed in their feet. Be sure to pick feet out daily. Horse owners who live in climates that see a good deal of snow and ice may want to ask their farriers about rim snow pads. These pads don’t cover the entire sole, but extend slightly beyond the edge of the shoe, and help force snow out, rather than letting it pack in the sole.
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