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Horses can live outside in comfort year round with a few amenities provided by their owners. Winter horse care requires feed modifications, attention to detail, mud and ice management, and shelter from the elements.

Feed Modifications

The average horse needs to consume 2% of his body weight per day to maintain body condition. The bulk of the horse's diet should consist of forage (either hay or pasture). It is generally understood that some horses require less than 2% of their body weight per day in feed especially if they are easy keepers while others (pregnant mares, working athletes, breeding stallions, older horses, etc.) could require up to 3% of their body weight in feed per day. A normal 1,000 pound horse that receives the bulk of his feed in hay should usually consume roughly 20 pounds of hay per day. In especially cold weather that same horse might need 25 or 30 pounds of hay per day to stay warm. Your horse should be fed in accordance with his body type; level of exercise; and with the input of a veterinarian, nutritionist, or feed specialist.

Fiber digestion is what keeps your horse warm. During especially cold times it is important that your horse is fed adequate forage (hay or grass) to produce body heat from digestion. When bad weather comes you might need to feed your horse additional hay meals throughout the day to ensure he is eating enough fiber to stay warm.

The best way to manage that easy keeper is to purchase low nutrient grass hay (one that is mature, but dry and free of dust and mold) which will provide forage for his consumption but not add excess calories. Likewise an older horse or hard keeper is best managed on immature, tender, nutrient rich hay. These horses could reap the most benefit from alfalfa hay (or an alfalfa grass mix) as it is higher in calories than grass hay.

Water and Salt

Increased hay consumption can easily cause impaction if your horse isn't drinking enough. Check the horse's water source twice daily and remove all ice, or provide a safe tank or bucket heater. Horses prefer to drink water that is slightly warm in the winter and their water consumption typically increases if water is kept de-iced either with an automatic de-icer or manually.

Continue providing free choice access to a trace mineral salt block through the winter, or supplementing your horse's feed with a small amount of salt, as these should both increase water consumption.

Attention to Detail

If you ride or work you horse in winter months, plan additional time for proper care both before and after rides.

Bits should be warmed prior to insertion in the horse's mouth. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways the most common include in a heated area (such as in a tack room or vehicle), in your hand, holding it under the arm, or inside a warm jacket. Wait until the bit is no longer cold to the touch before asking your horse to accept it.

Horses that sweat during winter rides need to be dried out completely before they are put away for the day. A thick winter coat can hold moisture for a long time and drying can be a time consuming task. Horses that are wet can be dried by rubbing with a towel, feeding hay, keeping the horse under cover, and applying a water-wicking cooler. Once the horse is dry remove the cooler and fluff up his hair before turn out, which will aid the insulating effectiveness of his coat.

You might consider trace- or body clipping horses that will be worked throughout the winter months to reduce the areas of thick winter hair that could trap moisture. This will not eliminate the need for returning your horse to dry but can reduce the time it takes to accomplish a dry horse. If clipping a horse's winter coat (which is his natural defense against winter weather) you must blanket accordingly.

Mud Management

There is likely not a farm in Kentucky that lacks mud during the winter. The key for you as a horse owner is to ensure that there is a place where your horse can find reprieve. It is common to develop mud around feeders, waterers, and gates, but your horse can generally escape the muddy areas for chunks of the day if there is adequate space for the number of animals in the field.

It is important to remove excess mud from your horse's legs on a regular basis to avoid fungal and bacterial infections. If an infection develops from excessive mud exposure your horse will need to be removed from the muddy environment and treated and cleaned regularly until the infection subsides.

You might consider creating a sacrifice area and building a pad (using rocks able to withstand traffic and allow for drainage) where you feed and water your animals to help prevent mud and erosion. For more information on developing a properly designed feed pad contact your local extension agent.

Horses and other livestock can become mired in especially muddy areas. If there is such an area in your horse's field it might be best managed by fencing it off from the rest of the pasture to keep your horses out. In the event that your horse becomes trapped in the mud and needs to be extricated dial 911 and emergency personal trained in large animal extrication will be contacted.

Ice Management

Ice chunks that build up in your horse's hooves will make him walk like he is on high heels, which is not good for his tendons and ligaments or for his muscles. Ice chunks need to be removed from your horse's hooves whenever they appear or at least twice daily. It is important to be extra attentive when picking your horse's hooves during the winter to remove ice chunks and check for lacerations caused by ice or other material.

Icy areas in and around barns and fields are problematic as they are usually slick and can cause accidents leading to injuries. Areas that are prone to developing ice should be closely monitored and might need to be sprinkled with sand, broken up (with a shovel or other tool), or fenced off to prevent slipping.

Water that becomes ice covered should also be monitored closely during winter weather. Best practice is to fence off wet areas and keep your horses out. Be sure to check the areas daily and be wary of horses that might venture onto the ice and fall through.

Shelter

Horses need shelter from the elements. Shelter comes in a variety of forms and the type you use largely depends on your facilities and finances. Trees and low places act as a natural wind barrier and can also provide some protection from precipitation. A three-sided constructed shelter provides the best protection from winter precipitation for pastured horses. It is important to ensure that your shelter offers adequate space for your animals and allows for their natural behavior and accommodates their hierarchy so that even the lowest horse in the pecking order can benefit from the shelter. In larger herds more than one shelter might be required.

Blankets

Many horse owners choose to blanket their horses during the winter months. A horse living outside that doesn't grow a thick winter coat could benefit from a blanket especially during cold snaps or inclement weather. Additionally horses that don't have access to manmade shelter will benefit from a proper turnout blanket during inclement weather.

A few tips for safe blanketing:

  • Only apply blankets to clean, dry horses.
  • Use the appropriate blanket for the appropriate use. A stable blanket is for use in a stable and it is not waterproof. Therefore a horse should not wear a stable blanket when he is in the field or pasture. A turnout blanket is for use during turnout and is designed to be waterproof. Horses that live out in the elements wearing blankets should wear waterproof and breathable turnout rugs. A blanket that isn't waterproof will quickly become saturated make your horse cold, which is the opposite of the desired effect of blanket use.
  • Use the blanket that is most appropriate for your horse's needs and the weather conditions. If it's 40 degrees your horse probably only needs a lightweight blanket. If it's -10 degrees he might prefer a heavy weight blanket.
  • Remove or change blankets as weather appropriate. Sweating in a blanket on a hot day can be just as problematic as wearing a stable blanket in wet weather.
  • Ensure the blanket properly fits your horse and that the straps and surcingles are appropriately fitted.
  • Check horses wearing blankets at least twice daily. Check the shoulder area for rubs and sores caused by the blanket. Also check to ensure that the straps and surcingles are all safely and securely in place.
  • Repair rips as soon as possible.
  • Remove your horse's blanket and groom him on a regular basis.
  • When removing the blanket for any length of time be sure to fluff up the horse's hair to allow it to work to properly insulate.

Take-Home Message

Feeding a diet rich in forage and providing protection from the mud and elements is a great way to ensure your horses' health and wellbeing during the winter months. For information specific to winter horse management in your area or region contact your local extension office or your veterinarian.

(Reprinted with permission from the Kentucky Horse Council.)