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Experts offer reminders on caring for horses during winter months

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

By nature, horses are tough animals, equipped to handle some of the harshest weather conditions. 

In fact, as seasons change and temperatures swing, horses began preparing for winter months by storing extra body fat for warmth, growing a thick coat to withstand the chill and pooling the majority of their blood flow in their core and around their vital organs.

Despite this, many experts note the importance of considering a few important tips to help horses comfortably live through the winter. 

Increasing energy intake

First and foremost, experts agree, like many animals during winter months, horses need to increase their energy intake. 

Mike Mumford, a team member of Redmond Equine, lifelong equestrian and Utah resident, explains horses burn more calories when temperatures are low, which makes them less feed efficient.

“Expending significant energy to stay warm without additional feed will result in a miserable winter and a thinner horse that is less happy and/or healthy,” Mumford tells Redmond Equine in a blog post dated Dec. 20, 2022. “Horses generate body heat through digestive activity, particularly the fermentation of fiber.” 

Therefore, Mumford encourages horse owners to compensate for their horse’s extra efforts and help increase warmth by increasing their daily feed rations. He mentions the average horse needs about 25 percent more caloric intake during winter months.

“Hay is the best feed for most horses in the winter,” he explains. “It’s a high-fiber, heat-generating forage, which helps horses stay warm and maintain body weight. Provide 1.5 to three percent of a horse’s total body weight in forage during cold months. For an average 1,200-pound horse, this equates to 18 to 36 pounds of hay per day.” 

In a Successful Farming article written by Jodi Henke and published on Jan. 4, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Livestock Extension Educator Monte Stauffer says horse owners may want to consider feeding horses alfalfa since it has a higher energy content. However, grass hay is also suitable.

Stauffer further mentions if horses are eating hay and still noticeably shivering or losing weight, individuals may consider adding grain to their horse’s diet to increase energy consumption. However, this needs to be done gradually to avoid upsetting their digestive system if they are not used to eating grain.

Maximizing water intake

In addition to a higher intake in energy, experts note it is also important for horses to continue drinking adequate amounts of fresh water. 

“With cold weather, horses have little incentive to seek water, and dehydration becomes a significant concern,” states Mumford.

“If horses drink less water, it can cause more digestive problems because they’re eating dry hay and dry feed. And, if they don’t get an adequate supply of water, it can cause impaction colic,” explains Stauffer.

To avoid this, experts encourage horse owners to provide constant access to fresh water between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, install a bucket heater or trough deicer to prevent freezing, add loose mineral salt to feed to provide a trigger to drink, hang a free-choice mineral salt lick in the stall or pasture and consider offering occasional electrolytes. 

Supplying run-in shelter

Another suggestion experts have when it comes to keeping horses warm during the winter is providing a run-in shelter, which allows horses living outside in winter conditions to stay dry and out of the wind. In fact, Mumford says run-in shelters can help horses conserve 20 percent more of their body heat. 

“Keep the shed open so horses can seek shelter when needed and still have the freedom to saunter out and bask in the winter sunshine at will,” he says. 

“Penning them in a stall presents its own issues. Horses need good ventilation, and the air in a barn is often still and cold,” he continues. “There is also less available heat from sunlight. It’s possible during dry, cold conditions stables are often more chilly than standing outside.”

Blanketing horses

Experts agree many horses don’t need blanketed during cold temperatures, although it is an option in specific situations.

In Henke’s Successful Farming article, Penn State University Extension Horse Specialist Ann Swinker reiterates horses have natural insulation provided by layers of fat and thick hair. However, horse owners may depend on blankets for certain horses including those that are young, old or sick. 

She notes it is important to use the right size of blanket so it doesn’t rub the skin raw if it’s too tight or get caught in the horse’s hooves if it is too loose. 

Mumford says it is also important to use a blanket with the proper thickness since horses with a blanket that is too light may become chilled, and a horse with a blanket that is too heavy will start to sweat, also running the risk of getting chilled.

If horses reside in a wet, muddy environment, Swinker says it is important the blanket is also waterproof.

Providing plenty
of exercise

Regularly exercising horses during the winter is important as well, especially if they are kept in a barn. This increases appetite, body temperature and blood circulation, while also reducing boredom. 

Mumford suggests warming horses up with a slow walk for a minimum of 10 minutes before moving into a faster gait, and then cooling down for another 10 minutes before dismounting. 

He also encourages riders to wait for a period of time before unsaddling and allowing horses to dry thoroughly before turning them out to avoid chilling, pneumonia or colic.

Reducing ice buildup

“While our four-legged friends are nimbler than we are, slipping risks still go up in the winter. Freeze-thaw patterns, in particular, create dangerous conditions for horses trying to pick their way across slick stalls, north sides of buildings and frozen spillover around watering troughs,” explains Mumford. 

With this said, he offers a few tips to reducing issues caused by ice buildup. These include using old rugs to provide a safe walkway for horses in and around the barn and adding sand, wood shavings, straw or horse-friendly ice melt on the floors of stalls and horse trailers to help increase traction.

Additionally, Mumford encourages horse owners to prevent ice buildup by repairing leaking rain gutters on barns or buildings, removing snow from high-use pathways and paddocks, avoiding water spillage when filling troughs and building up sunken ground where water collects and pools around troughs.

Being mindful of hoof care

Lastly, Mumford reminds horse owners to give hooves proper attention during winter months in order to catch problems early and ensure horses are healthy moving into spring. 

He suggests picking out hooves to avoid bacteria buildup or rot of the frog, trimming hooves every six to eight weeks to reduce snowpack and slipping risk and removing metal shoes or adding studs to increase traction.

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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