Baby, It's Cold Outside; Tips to Keep Horses Healthy in Falling Temperatures

Something about cherry blossoms blooming in January had many of us looking over our shoulders and wondering when winter would arrive. Although much of the country has been experiencing a mild winter, some parts are snow-bound, and a nationwide cold snap is expected to descend next week, meaning that horses and owners need to brace themselves for some more seasonal weather.

Horses in colder areas of the country need some special preparation to get them on the right hoof to come out of winter in as good a shape as they were in the fall.

Negative temperatures are familiar to Sandy Gagnon, a professor in the Animal Science Department and an equine extension specialist at Montana State University. He said proper preparation before the first snowflake falls can really help horses keep their weight and condition through the colder months.

In the autumn, Gagnon said he likes to see horses in a heavier body condition and allowed to grow a full coat of hair, as many horses in his area live outside.

"People should get their horses into a body condition score of a 5 or 6, so they have a little flesh on them going into the winter," Gagnon said. "We recommend horses not be blanketed, so they get a good hair coat. That way they'll be able to stand the cold winters."

Colorado State Veterinarian John Maulsby, DVM, said he likes to see horses even heavier, suggesting a BCS of 6 or even 7.

"I like to have them fleshy, so if we do get some real rough storms they can survive it a lot better," Maulsby said.

Both Gagnon and Maulsby strongly encouraged horse owners to continue their deworming program through the winter, starting with a treatment to get rid of bots after the first frost.

"People need to keep up their deworming program, depending on how the horses are kept over the winter," Gagnon said. "Horses that are kept in pens are wormed more often than horses that are on the range."

Maulsby also advocated having horses' teeth examined regularly and floated if necessary through the winter.

When cold weather hits, many horse owners' first reaction is to shut their horses in a cozy barn and throw a blanket on, but Gagnon suggested they resist the urge.

"Most of them will do well in cold weather if they've been kept (outside)," Gagnon said. "It's the horses that are in box stalls and then have to go out that will really have a problem with it, as they're not used to it and don't have a haircoat the same way as the horses that have been out."

"I've seen them out at 30 below, standing out. As long as they have a good hair coat and have somewhere they can get out of the wind, then they do fine," Gagnon adds. "If you put them in barns and blanket them and then turn them out in that cold weather, you've got some problems because that (shorter) hair coat is not going to protect them as well."

Although the winter's been mild, Gagnon said that horses living outside and unblanketed will be fine through a temperature drop. According to Gagnon, the only horses that really require special protection are those that have become acclimatized to a warmer area and are moved to colder region, and older horses or those in poor condition. Those horses might require some supplemental feeding of concentrates and further protection from the elements.

Through a winter on the range, Gagnon said a full ration of hay will provide more heat than grain.

"In cold weather, you need to supply probably 10% more (roughage than usual), as they need that much for heat," Gagnon said. "Roughage is much better than feed because it puts off more heat to digest it, so you get more body heat. Energy supplements generally provide a lot of energy, but they're digested easily so you don't get much body heat from them."

Gagnon said open available water, ideally heated to around 40°, is also important.

In severe winter weather, such as the barrage of storms recently dumping snow on Colorado's horses, Gagnon suggested a windbreak, a thick haircoat, open water, and plenty of forage to keep most horses healthy.

Maulsby said that while the National Guard was dropping hay to cattle in his state last week (the Associated Press reported as many as 15,000 cattle died in these storms), he hadn't heard anything about horses being affected.

"Out here I did talk a little bit with the guys that have horses--they've not had any problems with the horses at this point," Maulsby said. "They seem to thrive a little better than the cattle do, for sure. They can survive eating snow better than cattle can, and they paw down through snow to get to feed better than cattle."

Watch the forecasted low temperature sweep across the country here.

About the Author

Erin Ryder

Erin Ryder is a former news editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.

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