Horses Require Extra Attention when Temperatures Plummet
By Karen Waite, PhD/Michigan State University Extension • Jan 03, 2014 • Article #33140
The next few days will bring freezing weather to many parts of the country, and with that comes the need for extra care and attention for horses, donkeys, ponies, mules, and any other outdoor animals.
As the temperatures decrease, a horse’s feed requirements increase. Allowing horses free choice to good quality forage (hay) is the surest way to ensure that they consume enough energy, and the process of digesting forage will actually produce heat. Horses will typically consume 2 to 2.5% of their body weight in forage each day; that would be 25 pounds per day for a 1,000 pound horse. Winter pasture alone will not provide enough forage to sustain a horse and, therefore, must be supplemented with hay and/or grain.
The growing season some parts of the nation had last year produced overly stemmy or fibrous hay with a lower digestibility. As a result, making certain that horses are supplemented with grain when fed lower quality hay will help them maintain body weight and condition, a key factor in withstanding cold temperatures.
Constant access to clean, fresh water at 35 to 50°F is an absolute necessity to keeping horses healthy. This can be achieved via heated tanks or buckets, or by filling a tank, letting it freeze, cutting an access hole in the frozen surface, and then always filling the tank to below the level of the hole from that point on. This provides a self-insulating function and will typically keep the water below from freezing. Regardless of the method you choose, it's important to check tanks frequently to ensure your horse's water remains free of ice.
Additional ways to keep horses comfortable in cold weather include making sure they have access to shelter. A well-bedded, three-sided shed facing south or east will typically provide adequate protection from wind and snow, as can appropriate bluffs or treed areas.
When the temperatures get colder, mature horses will not typically move around much in an effort to conserve energy. Making an attempt to keep hay, shelter, and water fairly close together can limit the energy expenditure required, thus conserving body condition.
And, finally, keeping horses at a body condition score of 5 or 6 (on a 9-point scale) will help prevent surprises when horses shed their winter hair in the spring, and improve conception rates for those choosing to breed.