Winter Care for Horses

by Judy Van Put

We’ve just come through one of the coldest Januarys we can remember, but with a lot more winter to come, it’s a good time to review your cold-weather horse care.

While some think horses should receive increased rations of concentrated feed during cold weather, it’s actually hay or roughage that’s most important and effective in keeping your horse warm. Too much concentrated feed can upset the horse’s digestion and cause them to act “high-headed” or “hot-headed” and, coupled with a lack of adequate water and activity, can lead to impaction colic. Grain is higher in carbohydrates than hay and roughage, and an overabundance of carbs can cause a condition known as endotoxemia – where toxins from the carbs overload and actually change the bacteria in the horse’s gut, allowing them to breach the gut and enter the bloodstream, leading to colic and laminitis.

For thin, underweight or older horses, consider adding oil or a supplement that aids in gaining weight rather than increasing the amount of grain or concentrated feed you’re using. The best course of action for most horses is to boost their consumption of hay or dried forage to compensate for the lack of grass or pasture during the winter months.

Winter Care for Horses

Rather than increasing the amount of feed or concentrates you give your horse in winter to keep them warm, adding oil to your older or underweight horse’s feed can be helpful. Photo by Judy Van Put

Increasing the amount of hay you’re feeding will keep your horse warm, as hay is digested more slowly than grasses or other feeds, and generating heat from this longer-lasting metabolism is essentially warming your horse from the inside out. In cold winter weather, horses should have access to free-choice hay – as much as they can consume, night and day.

Although we do our horse chores and activities during the day and feed our horses morning and evening, many people forget that horses do not sleep all night. Dr. Juliet Getty, an equine nutritionist based in Lewisville, Texas, shared her views in “Three Not-So-Common Myths About Feeding Horses,” in which she stated that horses take short naps of 15 – 20 minutes throughout the day and night. Unlike other animals, horses will only sleep for a total of about two hours a day, continuing the habits of their ancestors who took turns sleeping for short periods of time and watching for predators. Wild horses were grazers and had access to unlimited forage 24 hours a day. It is especially important during winter to ensure horses are provided adequate amounts of hay and roughage. They will eat continuously, as their stomachs are relatively small, and they have evolved to forage this way to help to neutralize stomach acids and move the food along their digestive tract. This process helps to prevent stomach ulcers and colic which can occur when a horse is left without food for long periods of time and acids build up, or when they devour their food without properly chewing it.

For new horse owners the question of how much hay to provide at night is a good one – and the answer may be as simple as feeding more than you think your horse will eat, then see how much is left. There should always be some hay remaining when you go out to feed in the morning, remembering that if your horse is pawing or kicking or acting anxious, he is not only hungry but is probably feeling stress and pain from the acids in his empty stomach. Ironically, this stress can prevent an overweight horse from losing weight! The solution is to ensure that your horse is on round-the-clock pasture or in the barn with a sufficient amount of hay.

Dr. Getty stated that “once he realizes that the hay supply will never run out, he will start to self-regulate his intake and actually begin to eat less than he used to because he has calmed down, both physically and emotionally.”

Coupled with feeding an increased amount of hay during winter is the importance of ensuring your horse is receiving an adequate amount of water. Hay and dry roughage contain less than 20% moisture, as opposed to the green grass of summer with its 75% or more moisture content. Proper digestion requires body movement as well.

Horses don’t drink as much during winter but they simply cannot get enough water to drink if they are forced to eat snow or break through ice to get their water – and can easily succumb to impaction colic as a result. For those that don’t have water faucets in the barn, we find heated hoses make our daily chores in winter much easier. Other solutions to combatting frozen water and encouraging your horse to drink more include the use of heated water buckets which hang right in the stall or tank warmers for watering troughs. Remember to wash the heated water buckets out each day, as the warmer water on the bottom can collect bacteria from saliva and debris and can cause an off-taste to the water. You can encourage your horse to drink more by keeping a salt block in his stall and in his turn-out, and even sprinkle a little salt in his water. Some veterinarians suggest the use of warm water and electrolytes added to the feed to encourage horses to consume more water during very cold weather if the horses (especially older ones) are reluctant to drink. Our Morgan mare doesn’t really need concentrated feed, but we give her a mixture of timothy grass pellets and TEFF (lower sugar) grass pellets with warm water to make a sort of mash that she enjoys.

In addition to adequate hay and water, daily turnout and exercise is very important in keeping your horse healthy and happy during the long winter. Ideally, your horse will have turn-out time each day that will provide them with exercise and fresh air. We feed hay in hay bags hung along the paddock fence, moving them from place to place to take advantage of the sun’s rays during the morning and afternoon. Watch for icy spots, such as around the watering trough and doorways, to prevent injuries from slipping or falling. Keeping a shovel and pail of sand or wood ashes near your turnout area will enable you to provide some traction on slippery surfaces, especially if ice is too thick for your horse to break through. If no safe turnout is available, taking your horse out for a 30-minute walk with a lead rope each day, whether in the barn aisle, an indoor arena or the driveway until the ice/frozen mud subsides, is helpful in keeping them moving and preventing stiffness and even colic. Our summer pasture is about a third of a mile hike along a wooded trail from the barn, and as long as the snow isn’t too deep, I enjoy walking with my horse from the barn to the pasture. She loves a good roll in the snow and will often leap up and gallop around.

Winter care involves some pre-planning and thinking ahead, with an eye on the daily weather forecast. As long as your horses have enough free-choice hay or other roughage available, as well as adequate non-frozen water and daily turnout/exercise, they should be able to withstand winter’s chills and remain healthy and content for the months to come.

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