Preparing Your Horse for Winter

Here are tips in four different areas of horse management to help your horse not only survive, but thrive during cold weather so you have a healthy and willing partner when warmer temperatures return.


Forage, or hay, should make up the largest portion of your horse's diet especially in winter. Increasing the amount of hay is the best way to keep weight on horses when it's cold, as the fermentation process generates heat. Horses needing more calories can also be fed fortified grain, fat or other supplement. "Easy keepers" should be given a ration-balancer or multi-vitamin/mineral supplement to correct any deficiencies in hay alone.

Research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine showed that if during cold weather horses have only warm water available, they will drink a greater volume per day than if only icy cold water is available. But, if given a choice between warm and icy water simultaneously, they drink almost exclusively from the icy and drink less volume than if only warm water is available.


Studies have found that muscular strength, cardiovascular fitness and overall flexibility decrease in horses that have been "let down" during winter, even if daily turnout is provided. While cold weather exercise can be challenging, you can improve conditions somewhat. With your farrier, determine if your horse has best traction with no shoes, regular shoes, shoes with borium, "snowball" pads, or another arrangement. Add a binding agent to indoor arenas to hold moisture, then water as often as temperature will allow. Warm up and cool down with care, spending twice as much time on each of these than when it is warmer.


In general, horses with an adequate hair coat, in good flesh, and with access to shelter don't need to be blanketed. However, horses that have been clipped, recently transported to a cold climate, or are thin or sick might need the additional warmth and protection of outerware. Since horses' winter coats begin to grow as early as July, choices for inhibiting hair growth are using artificial lighting to simulate long days and adding clothing to your horse as soon as it begins to get chilly.


A number of health conditions seem to be exacerbated by winter environment. Decrease the risk of impaction colic by providing only warm water (as described above) and topdressing electrolytes. Ensure proper ventilation for horses with "heaves" and consider wetting indoor arenas and aisles as well as hay. Provide appropriate medications or supplements to prevent ulcers and arthritis "flare-ups" during periods of increased stall-time. Keep horses and their surroundings as clean and dry as possible to prevent thrush, scratches (pastern dermatitis, a moist exudative dermatitis affecting horses at the caudal heel and pastern area), and rain rot (dermatophilosis).

Paying particular attention to your horse's nutrition, exercise, health, and protection from the elements during winter will help you have a ready and willing partner come spring.

This is a summary of Dr. Gray's presentation on preparing your horse for winter, part of the SmartPak GetSmart series.

The final GetSmart discussion with Gray will be on the topic of Colic Prevention, on Dec. 13. The session begins at 7p.m. Discussions are hosted at the SmartPak Store in Natick, Mass. For more information see

About the Author

Lydia Gray, DVM, MA

Lydia Gray, DVM, is Medical Director and Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak Equine. She was previously the executive director of the Hooved Animal Humane Society in Woodstock, IL, and an Owner Education Director for the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

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