Prepare for Winter Now

Summer might still be going strong where you are, but we all know that sooner or later winter will be on its way, bringing shorter days, colder temperatures, and in many regions, snow and ice. For horse owners, winter is a true test of one's commitment to their hobby or sport--as much as we love to tromp around the barn and fuss over our horses, we must admit that it's a lot more fun when the weather is warm.

No matter how natural the phenomenon might be, fall's gradual progression into winter raises a number of issues for the horsey set. As the mercury falls, horse owners must reassess their horses' diets and exercise routines. Horses which are susceptible to certain health conditions--such as heaves and laminitis--might have a tougher time during the winter months. And preventing colic during this period when horses are less thirsty, and therefore unlikely to drink as much water as they would during the summer, is something that is on everyone's mind.

First, The Oldsters

Geriatric horses are especially vulnerable to problems during winter, notes James M. Hamilton, DVM, of Southern Pines Equine Associates in Southern Pines, N.C. "They are a little less flexible, a little more prone to dehydration, and they are more prone to impaction colic by virtue of changes in diet," he says.

Before the onset of winter, it's a good idea to assess where your horse stands. Many horse owners choose this time to call the vet out for a routine checkup and vaccinations.

"We recommend routine vaccination and deworming," Kathy Anderson, PhD, extension horse specialist at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, explains. "Usually, we deworm the horses twice a year, and in the fall, as you are coming into winter, we like to make sure that they are dewormed specifically for bots and some of those other parasites for that first frost, then have them up to date on whatever routine vaccinations are recommended for that particular area."

"Winter represents an increase in physical challenge to the horse, and as you get into winter, it's probably good to ask, 'Do I have a healthy horse?' " Hamilton advises. He suggests that horse owners have their horses' teeth checked prior to winter, as long-leaf hay is more difficult to chew than the grass they might have been eating. "All of these general things theoretically stack the deck in favor of the horse being able to chew, swallow, digest, and absorb his food at optimum rates."

At Graham Training Center in Olympia, Wash., professional horse trainer Julie Graham has blood work conducted for her older charges. "If you are dealing with geriatric horses, it's prudent to get some blood work done and have the vet give them a good hauling over," she says. "Because of the stress of the weather change, the cold weather will bring on some of the things that were kind of dormant earlier on. So if they possibly have borderline Cushing's disease, that will show up."

Food and Drink, Drink, Drink!

Hamilton notes that many problems arise during the first few weeks of winter. "I find that we have a significant increase in the number of colics during the first three weeks of what we would actually consider winter," he says. "Quite honestly, horses just aren't as thirsty then, and their intestinal tract has got to adjust to the fact that they are consuming less water."

In many cases, the removal of grass from the diet can also put a horse's digestive system into shock. "They may have been on pasture and getting more grass or particle-sized fiber, and now all of a sudden that's not available and they have to swap over to hay. Both of those factors increase the risk of colic."

Hamilton suggests that beet pulp can serve as a refined fiber source during the winter.

There are a number of tricks horse owners use to get their horses to drink more water during the winter, all of which are labor-intensive, but well worth it if you want to prevent your horse from colicking.

"There is good evidence that horses will consume more water if the water is kept warm," Hamilton notes. At some stables, water is changed with more frequency during the winter to prevent it from freezing, while others have automatic watering systems installed. Hamilton also suggests that salt and even electrolytes be added to the feed program to encourage the horses to drink.

"Electrolyte usage is counterintuitive to a lot of people (in the winter), because it seems strange to add electrolytes if the horse isn't sweating, but every effort must be made to encourage the horse to consume more water," says Hamilton. "Impaction colics during the winter are clearly the result of a lack of water."

Robert A. Mowrey, PhD, extension horse commodity coordinator at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., notes that horses should be drinking at least three gallons of water per day. "Whenever the temperature goes below 45°F, horses will decrease their water intake," he says. Normally, horses drink 0.3 to 0.8 gallons of water for every 100 pounds of body weight, but they require a minimum of three gallons per day to keep everything working properly, such as saliva production.

Mowrey suggests the following methods to promote water intake: "The standard operation (at North Carolina State University) is the day before the cold snap, either supplement one ounce of salt on the grain, or increase the hay intake--because hay is fine, dry matter--to encourage the horse to drink more water. The day of the cold snap, mix the concentrate with a gallon of water per feeding, and allow it to sit for 10 or 15 minutes."

Mowrey also recommends mixing the feed with hot water, which will cool down to a lukewarm temperature while it is sitting out. "That way, you are getting at least two gallons of water into the horse daily in his feed alone."

Graham reminds stable managers to ensure that their water systems are working properly well before the cold weather sets in. "If you have automatic watering systems, you have to make sure that all of your water heaters are working before it starts to freeze, because water is extremely important for both the horse and the maintenance of your facilities," she says. "Once you get into those first cold snaps, make sure your pipes are working well, and if you have any leaks, take care of them."

Horses require energy to remain warm during the winter, which necessitates an increase in roughage. "The best way to keep their weight up in order for them to maintain their own internal body temperature is to increase the amount of hay that they get," says Anderson. "A horse will create more body heat internally from the digestion of hay quicker than from an increase in grain."

If the horse isn't on a regular exercise regimen, Graham decreases the amount of protein he receives. "Because of the inclement weather, they are going to be in their stalls more than they are going to be outside," she says. "We are going to cut down on the proteins and add more fat to their diets. Protein usually gets them a little bit too hyper, then they are going to start picking on things in the stall and getting more antsy about wanting to get out and run."

The diets for horses in training don't change as much during the winter, says Graham. "If they are in training, we keep them the same. Basically, we will make changes based on their energy output," she explains. "We wait to see how they are gaining weight and losing weight, then make adjustments accordingly."

At her facility, Graham helps geriatric horses ease into the winter months by introducing joint supplements during the late summer. "Our older horses are usually put on a joint supplement, because they are probably dealing with arthritis, especially if they are performance animals," she says. "I will start them on the joint supplements in July or August to make sure that they have them in their blood as they are getting into those colder nights. It helps, especially if you are working them during the winter."

Mowrey explains that a normal horse hair coat, if allowed to grow naturally, will change a horse's energy needs. "Full hair coat plus body fat really reduces the need for increased energy requirements during the winter," he says. "When you do hit prolonged cold spells, extra body fat is a stored form of energy that they can burn." Where Mowrey is located in North Carolina, for example, if the temperature gets below 35° F for more than two days, 5-10% additional digestible energy would be required in feedstuffs to maintain the desired body conditioning.

During those periods, Mowrey suggests a 5-10% increase of hay only. "What happens is when you increase the hay, there is more fiber available and the microbial population gets more active and that generates more heat (inside the horse)," he explains. "You actually increase the body temperature quicker by increasing the hay. Those horses that have been blanketed or clipped, if it goes beyond two days or a low temperature situation, then you would want to increase their grain (in addition to the hay) intake to make up for that."

While horse owners should pay close attention to what their horses are eating during the winter, Mowrey cautions against changing anything too quickly. "Avoid sudden dietary changes," he says. "You are better off staying with the same diet, but feeding more of it, rather than switching diets very quickly."

If you must make adjustments to your horse's feed program, introduce the changes gradually, over the span of a week. "I think the high-fat diets are excellent during the winter; it's a safer form of energy, and we see less founder and colics with energy in the form of fat, so you are able to up the energy intake without the risk of nutritional diseases," he adds.

Winter Footwear

As with anything horse-related, the more strictly one maintains a routine, the better off the horse will be. While your horse might not be spending much time in the ring, it's still important to book regular visits with the farrier, Anderson emphasizes. At the same time, some horses which have just received a visit from the farrier might not be candidates for immediate turnout. "You might run into a foot problem in horses (such as sole bruising) that are walking on frozen ground and ice if they have been freshly trimmed or have really sensitive feet," Graham notes. "Some horses might be more susceptible to a simple soreness of the feet from ground conditions, such as ground that has gotten uneven from freezing and thawing."

In regions where there is a lot of snow and ice, shoes could be pulled. "If the shoes are on and the horses are out in the snow, it can become pretty dangerous," she says. "The snow can get balled up underneath their feet, making it easy for the horses to slip and fall. You really have to be careful about that." However, for horses that are in training or horses with hoof problems that must wear shoes, snow pads can be an alternative to prevent snow and ice from balling up in the hoof.

During colder spells, according to Hamilton, horses' feet tend to grow less. "There are blacksmiths in my part of the country that believe that the foot the horse grows during the winter is not nearly as healthy (as what they grow during the summer)," he says. To counter this, Hamilton suggests horse owners apply hoof dressings to maintain adequate moisture levels in their horses' hooves.

A Cozy Barn Isn't Always a Healthy Barn

Humans--especially those living in cold climates--work very hard at ensuring that their homes are airtight. During the winter, no one wants to have cold air blowing in.

While they might have the best intentions, stable managers who apply this practice to their non-centrally heated and ventilated barns are doing a disservice to their horses. You might be shutting out the cold (which horses are naturally equipped to fend off) and fresh air, while simultaneously capturing unwanted pollutants.

"We sometimes try to mimic the environment of our living room, and that is a huge mistake," says Hamilton.

Dust isn't the only irritant that is the result of a closed-off barn. "If you barn is really closed up, you will tend to get a strong ammonia smell from the urination of the horses," Anderson notes. "You want to have good ventilation in the barn so you can minimize the potential for respiratory problems."

Before winter sets in and horses are kept inside for longer periods of time, Anderson suggests that barn managers conduct a thorough once-over of the stalls, including the floors. "Sometimes over the summer, depending on the type of floors you have in your stalls, some holes might develop, especially if it is a dirt floor," she says. "During the fall, take the time to make sure that your stalls are in good shape and that the floors are level, because the horses might be stalled a little more than they had been previously because you may not have as much of an opportunity to turn them out."

Horses on turnout during the winter should have access to shelter that protects them against wind, rain, and snow, Anderson notes.

In wet climates, where horses are coming in from slippery, slimy conditions onto hard barn floors, it might be a good idea to provide some traction. Suggests Graham: "If you are in a wet climate, you might want to put down some hog fuel or gravel outside of the doors and the entrances where they are traveling in and out, because you will be dealing with slippery floors."

Ponds with the potential to freeze over should be properly cordoned off. "Do a lot of maintenance around the perimeters of any ponds so that the horses on turnout won't fall into them," says Graham.

She added, "If you are going to have your horses outside, make sure that your lean-tos don't have any bare edges, because they are going to spend a lot of time out there. Your fences need to be free of snags and anything that is poking out and can cut your horse."

Keeping Fit in the Cold

In colder regions, there is a tendency for riders who aren't in training to stop riding until the weather permits, especially if there is no indoor arena on the grounds. For practical purposes, many of these riders don't have a choice--until Mother Nature warms up, it's just not possible to work under saddle. If you do have access to an indoor arena, or if you are in an area where the weather is more temperate, it's best to stick to some sort of regular exercise regimen.

"I believe strongly in maintaining a horse's fitness level, because I think they do better with the change-over to winter," says Hamilton. "Horses do the very best when they are in a program."

While riders should be sensitive to the effects of colder temperatures during exercise, Hamilton believes horses are better equipped to deal with exercising during the winter than humans are. "Unlike humans, horses have a very long trachea, which is important because the longer the trachea, the more chance the inhaled air has to warm up before it hits the lungs," he says. "If you have decent footing, I don't think that horses care much whether it is winter or summer."

To Blanket or Not to Blanket?

During the winter, humans will layer up with as many turtlenecks, sweaters, and quilts as it takes to keep the cold out. If a horse is allowed to grow a normal coat, it can keep him warm.

"There are lots of horses in this world that do very nicely without blankets, assuming they are healthy and able to produce a nice hair coat," Hamilton says. "If you have geriatric horses that might have some (health-related) issues and they aren't as hardy as they once were, blanketing them will (help them) adjust to the fact that they may not produce an adequate hair coat."

If anything, blankets are tools of convenience. "For people traveling on the show circuit, it's more labor-efficient to cut the hair and keep the horse blanketed," says Hamilton.

"Blankets are just a convenience for us; if your horse is in training or being worked, what we would normally do in the winter is, because we want our horses to dry fast, we would clip them," Graham explains. "Then you have to compensate for that heat loss by putting a blanket on. For training purposes, it makes it easier to groom, and it lets them dry faster."

Horses which aren't in training, or which don't get worked very often, probably don't require blanketing, according to Graham. "If your horse is just going out to pasture for the winter, then his natural defenses are the best way to go," she says.

Graham reminds those who opt to blanket their horses during the winter to make sure that their blankets have been cleaned and mended well before the cold sets in.

For those with horses in competition, it's especially important to maintain a shorter hair coat--not just for convenience, but for showing purposes. A popular method of achieving a shiny, short coat during the winter months is to put the horse on a lighting program.

"The amount of daylight is tied directly to how the horse's hair coat will grow," Anderson explains. "When the short days come on, our horses will grow a thicker, shaggier type of hair coat. If you want to keep that short summer hair coat year round, you have to be aware that starting during the early fall, the horse must be placed on a lighting program."

Anderson suggests that horses in this situation be exposed to 16 hours of light a day. In some barns, the lights will come on at six o'clock in the morning, and off at 10 o'clock at night. "Another way is to keep the days as they are, and then at three o'clock in the morning the lights will come on for an hour; research has shown that also works," she says. "Most folks will leave the lights on throughout the day and into the evening to keep short hair coats. Blankets help, but you also have to have them on a lighting program."

Unblanketed horses with long winter coats might look fatter than they are, Anderson notes. "In the winter it can be deceiving, because long, shaggy hair coats can mask the horse's body and make you think that your horse is in better body condition than they might actually be," she explains.

Take a few moments to regularly run your hands alongside your horse to check for any weight loss.

Graham recommends that horse owners groom their horses at least once a week during the winter to assess not only their horse's weight, but their body condition in general. "It is very important, because there are things that you can detect, like mud fever, rain rot, parasites, and wounds," she explains. Regular contact is the best way to ensure that your horse remains healthy. "Some people throw their horses out on pasture during the winter and then don't look at them again. They will come back the next spring and find out that the horse has rain rot over its back, or an inflamed pastern because of dermatitis. It's important to have a close relationship with your horse throughout the winter." 


Just as there are morning people and night owls, there are those who loathe winter, and those who can't wait for its arrival. Lucky for us, horses are pretty adaptable to winter conditions, provided that you give them the right tools to do it. Here is how to get through the winter without holding your breath.

Pre-Season Preparations--Schedule a checkup with your veterinarian so you have a good idea of how healthy your horse is before the days get shorter and the nights get colder. This is also a good time for teeth floating, deworming, and regular vaccinations.

Water--Your horse really can't get enough of it, especially during the winter. Horses tend to drink less when it's cold outside. It's going to take a little more work to get your horse to consume the desired amount of water, but it's well worth it. The less water they consume, the more risk there is of colic.

Hay--It takes more energy for horses to maintain their body temperatures during the winter months. An increase in hay helps keep your horse warm.

Avoid Foot Follies--Be aware of adverse ground conditions, pull shoes if you are in a snowy region and the horse can tolerate being barefoot, and by all means, keep scheduling visits with your farrier!

More Coat--Just because your horse is hairy doesn't mean he's packing the pounds. Run your hands along his sides regularly to make sure that he's not getting ribby.

About the Author

Carolyn Heinze

Carolyn Heinze ( is a freelance writer/editor. She currently works from her pied à terre in Paris, France, where she continually dreams of convincing the French Republican Guard to let her have a go-round on one of its magnificent horses. One can dream, can't they?

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