Cold Weather Diets

Those cold winter months of mud, slush, and frozen ground ... owners dread them, but feed dealers, anticipating increased sales, often look forward to them. The horses? For the most part, they don't seem to care, and in fact, many seem to be energized by the crisp air and chilly breezes. While very young, very old, or ailing horses might need specific changes in routine, healthy horses with an intact hair coat can usually tolerate winter weather with few problems if owners pay attention to basic feeding and management principles.


If it's not the most important winter consideration, water is at least near the top of the list. Even when the horse is not working and sweating, water consumption is necessary to prevent impaction of ingested material in the intestinal tract. Horses naturally tend to drink somewhat less water when the temperature drops, so every effort should be made to ensure sufficient intake. Owners can start with these management steps:

  • Provide a constant supply of clean water that is not too cold. Experts disagree on the exact "favorite" water temperature. Horses will drink water that is quite cold, but they tend to ingest a larger amount when water is warmed to around 45 or 50 degrees F. Water that is hot to the touch is not suitable.
  • Make sure water sources aren't frozen, either by using insulated buckets, installing an electric heater, or frequently providing warmed water. NOTE: Electric shock will back horses off a water tank, even if they are extremely thirsty. If you have a heated water tank that horses are not using, check and check again (use an extremely sensitive voltmeter, or schedule a visit from an electrician) to be certain there is no "stray" voltage. Some horses will react to voltage that is too slight for humans to detect, while other horses don't seem to be bothered.
  • Adding water to feed, giving occasional bran mashes, and sprinkling salt on feed to stimulate a thirst response are all useful techniques, but these measures by themselves might not ensure adequate water intake. Also, don't count on horses eating snow to stay hydrated. Melting snow in the mouth and stomach uses so much energy that it's difficult for the horse to maintain a safe body temperature.


Fermentation of fiber in the horse's hindgut is the major heat source that keeps horses comfortable through colder months. Therefore, a steady hay supply is crucial. While many horses continue to graze some pasture, hay usually provides the majority of winter forage. Type and amount of hay varies depending on a horse's size, metabolism, and workload. At a minimum, start with the basic guideline of feeding enough hay to equal about 1.5-2% of the horse's body weight (around 15-20 pounds a day for a horse weighing 1,000 pounds) and increase as needed when the temperature drops.

  • Easy keepers and horses doing minimal work do well on medium-quality grass hay (can contain a few weeds, might have been cut when a little more mature than optimum).
  • Horses with average metabolisms will do better on good-quality grass hay (mostly free of weeds, made from grass that was not overmature at cutting).
  • Heavily exercised horses or those with special needs (older horses, thin horses, horses recovering from illness) might need a grass-legume mix or even a straight alfalfa hay.

As a general rule, horses that shiver and regularly clean up every scrap of hay probably need to have their hay rations increased. Horses that simply enjoy eating might also consume every flake in sight, but their rations do not need to be increased. Use a weight tape every few weeks through the winter to track body condition changes, which will reveal if a heavy-coated horse that appears fat is actually losing weight. Likewise, horses that leave some hay untouched might seem to have been overfed, but it is also possible they are leaving weeds, rough plants, or moldy flakes. Inspect the rejected material and purchase better-quality hay if necessary.

Stalled horses have plenty of time to pick through their hay, munching a few mouthfuls now and then as the hours pass. Pastured horses that eat hay in a group setting need to be monitored to be sure that low-status animals have adequate access to hay. Very timid horses might need to be fed hay separately or in smaller groups. Space hay piles widely in the field and offer several extra piles to minimize this problem.


Winter diets usually include concentrates for two reasons: nutrients and energy. Hay and dormant grasses don't have the same nutritional value as fresh pasture, and this lack can be overcome by feeding a fortified sweet feed or pelleted product. Concentrates also pack a lot more energy than grass or hay, and horses that are eating plenty of good-quality hay and are still losing weight might need additional calories from concentrates in cold, windy, damp weather. As with hay selection, the type of concentrate depends on the individual horse, and most feed dealers offer a variety of choices to meet the needs of young, mature, old, working, or breeding horses. Feeds containing beet pulp or soy hulls include highly digestible fiber along with more traditional sources of energy. Corn oil, rice bran, and other fat products boost the caloric density of a horse's ration. Overweight horses that need vitamins and minerals in a low-calorie package can be given a supplement that provides only these nutrients. Remember to feed no more than about five pounds of pellets or sweet feed at one time, breaking larger feedings into several small meals spaced throughout the day.

Beyond The Basics

A winter diet containing water, hay, and concentrated feed is a good starting point. However, managers, can ensure their horses' comfort by following these additional steps:

  • Horses should have access to shelter from extreme weather. This can be a barn, run-in shed, windbreak, or even a grove of trees. As with access to hay, low-status horses might be blocked from shelter by more aggressive animals, and alternative grouping might be necessary.
  • Owners should be sure horses have proper dental care and periodic dewormings so that feed can be properly digested and utilized.
  • Daily inspection of horses in winter months should include a light grooming, an all-over check for injuries, and an inspection for skin problems.
  • Water consumption and manure consistency should be monitored, as very dry manure is a sign that the horse might be dehydrated. 

Article reprinted with the permission of copyright holder Kentucky Equine Research. Visit for more horse health and nutrition information.

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