WINTER CARE AND FEEDING
by Carey A. Williams, Ph.D., Associate Extension Specialist in Equine Management and
Sarah L. Ralston, VMD, Ph.D., DACVN, Associate Professor in Animal Science
As days get shorter and the weather becomes cold and wet, there are many things to consider in order to maintain horse health and well-being throughout the long winter months.
Housing and Shelter
One needs to look at their individual circumstances during the winter months to figure out what is best for their horse. For example, even in the harshest winter, most horses do not need to be stabled in a barn if there is shelter from the elements in the form of a run in shed or even a dense stand of trees. However, most horses that are kept outside with little or no shelter will grow a longer hair coat. This longer, denser hair coat will help keep them warm and prevent heat loss, but it limits their ability to effectively cool out quickly after exercise. Some solutions may include clipping the long hair and blanketing the horse. When they are turned out in cold, windy and/or wet weather horses need to be monitored carefully for shivering (whether blanketed or not).
A horse’s respiratory health during the winter can be a concern if housed indoors with limited ventilation. Ventilation should be maximized by keeping windows/doors open as much as possible, even in very cold weather. Ceiling fans/vents also facilitate adequate air exchange. Wet bedding and manure should be completely removed at least once a day.
Blanketing and Clipping
It is not necessary to blanket a horse in winter as long as it has a naturally thick hair coat and is adapted to the cold. There are a
wide variety of blankets available, ranging from lightweight “sheets” that are best suited for short term use after riding, to thick, water proof “rugs” designed for long term use with horses turned out for extended periods of time. It is important to select a blanket that is appropriate for the specific conditions the horse is facing. If the horse is outside in wet weather, it is important that the blanket be at least water repellent and lined with material that will wick moisture away from the horse’s skin. A wet horse that has been blanketed will be colder than an unblanketed horse with a thick hair coat that can naturally dry out. Blanketed horses should also be monitored daily by either removing the blanket or checking with a bare hand to see if the weight of the blanket is causing the horse to sweat. If a horse sweats under the blanket, especially if its coat is dirty, it can contribute to skin irritation and infections. (Left: Two horses with full winter coats.)
It is equally important that blankets fit the horse. Many horses develop rubs or sores on the point of their shoulders, withers, and where the straps secure the blanket if it is too small or tight. If the horse is blanketed continuously it is imperative that the blanket be completely removed at least once a day. This can be done while the horse is being groomed; check for rub marks, infections and monitor for weight gain or loss. For more detailed information on blanketing, see Rutgers Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet “To Blanket or Not To Blanket” FS1081.
If horses are exercised regularly to the extent of generating sweat through the winter months, it is recommended to at least use a ‘trace clip,’ where the hair is shaved to about 1/8 inch length from the underside of the neck and abdomen, and the sides of the horse from the elbows to about a quarter of the way up the body. If the horse has a complete ‘body clip’, where all hair on the neck, legs and body is shaved, it should not be left out in inclement weather even if blanketed. Other clipping patterns commonly used include a ‘hunter clip’ where hair is shaved similar to a body clip but hair is left in the saddle area and on the legs. The ‘blanket clip’ is where hair is shaved from the neck and body similar to a body clip but hair is only left on the legs. Body clipped horses may have higher energy needs than an unclipped horses due to their increased exercise regime and excess heat loss. Be aware that the hair will not grow back rapidly in the winter, so once horses are clipped, they must have the appropriate shelter and blankets for the rest of the winter and into the early spring months.
One health concern in the winter is protection against infectious diseases even though most horses get their routine vaccinations in the spring. Booster vaccinations for diseases that are transmitted by direct contact, such as influenza, rhinopneumonitis, and strangles are recommended if the horse is in a boarding stable with a lot of horse traffic. If new horses are brought in frequently or the horse is attending shows/competitions throughout the winter season, a more rigorous vaccination schedule may be needed. Mosquito borne diseases such as West Nile Virus should not be a problem in the colder climates but booster vaccines should be considered if shipping the horse to warmer climates for the winter.
Horses should only be de-wormed as needed, based on fecal analysis for the presence/absence of intestinal parasite larvae or eggs. Manure should be picked up on a daily basis in the paddocks and around areas where horses congregate outside to prevent unsanitary organic material accumulation that contributes to the development of parasite infestation, thrush and skin infections on the lower legs of horses. This is especially important when the temperature climbs above freezing and melts snow and ice, creating muddy conditions.
Horses turned out for the winter should be checked daily to ensure that they are healthy (Image right).
Another health consideration during the winter months could occur after heavy storms. Tree limbs that fall into paddocks/pastures could potentially be toxic and horses could chew on the branches out of curiosity or boredom. Also, in the spring, the first green plants to appear are usually noxious weeds, not the nutritious grasses, so it is important to feed plenty of hay and keep the weed population down by mowing and/or use of herbicides if necessary.
In harsh winter weather many horses are often stabled for days at a time. As long as they have unlimited access to hay, salt and water most are perfectly happy to remain in stalls. However, if horses develop lower leg edema (stocking up) or are agitated in the stall, efforts should be made to turn it out for exercise as often as possible (even if in an indoor arena) or at least hand walk.
Exercising horses does not need to be stopped when the snow becomes deep, it can actually act as a form of resistance training. However, caution needs to be taken when riding in snow that is excessively heavy and damp, as it simulates riding in deep sand and could potentially cause tendon injuries. If the snow is light and less than a foot, doing trot sets or some lighter flat work can help with cardiovascular conditioning and hindend strength. It is advised that one know the area where they are riding well so not to step on snow covered holes or obtstacles.
If riding a fully clipped horse in the extreme cold, it is recommended to use a quarter sheet during warm up and cool down. However, horses with full coats or a trace clip do not need a quarter sheet when warming up; for cool down, depending on how sweaty the horse becomes, a quarter sheet might be necessary to help wick away the moisture. Even with clipped horses, it is not recommend continuing the entire workout with a blanket or sheet. Cooling down and drying out the hair coat is important. Leaving a hot, wet horse standing in a cold, drafty stall or turning it out in the cold could cause it to get chilled and potentially stressed to the point of getting sick.
After working horses in frigid temperatures, horses should be cooled down completely so that they are completely dry (Image left).
In terms of shoeing requirements in the winter, some horses are left barefoot, especially if not ridden often. Horses have better traction on snow and ice with bare feet than with flat metal shoes and the snow will not accumulate in the bare hoof as it does in a shod hoof. If the horse needs to be shod and is going to be ridden or turned out in snow, it is advisable to use “snow pads,” in the form of a full hoof pad or a rim pad, which prevent snow from accumulating in the hoof. Caulks (studs that are either fixed or removable) or borium can be used to help with traction on frozen or possibly icy ground (ask your farrier about options possible). Sole bruising is a problem in the winter when working on uneven frozen ground, especially in horses with thin soles. If riding regularly in the winter without pads, keep workouts to unfrozen footing (or deeper snow) as much as possible. If arenas are frozen it may be best to postpone riding that day or week rather than risk injury to the horse.
Major nutritional concerns during the winter months include providing adequate calories to maintain good body condition and enough water intake to prevent impaction colic. To monitor body condition score in unclipped horses in the winter it is essential that they are physically touched in order to get a true assessment. In the winter, horses often need extra energy to keep warm. Horses’ energy requirements may increase up to 25% during winter months. Usually this need can be met by feeding approximately 25% more hay if their hay intake is normally less than they would eat voluntarily (1.5 to 2.0% of their body weight. The extra hay generates additional warmth to the horse through the heat produced in the hindgut (cecum and colon) when digesting/fermenting the forage. Boredom can also be a significant factor in winter when horses are not turned out or exercised as much, so keeping them content with free access to hay or forage based feeds, salt and water will reduce the incidence of stress-related problems and vices.
If horses are consuming overly mature or low quality hay, the vitamin and perhaps mineral content may be inadequate. Supplementing a lower quality hay ration with a multi-vitamin/ mineral supplement specifically formulated for the individual horse’s stage of life (growing, mature, lactating, etc.) and type of hay (grasses vs. legumes like alfalfa or clover) is a good idea at any time of year. Be careful if considering special “winter supplements.” Be aware that most of these are standard multi-vitamin/mineral supplements, but cost more just because they have a special name. Any multi-vitamin/mineral balanced for the type of hay being fed and the life stage of the horse would be sufficient.
Horses limit their intake of ice-cold water to only what is absolutely necessary to satisfy thirst, which may not be adequate to maintain optimal hydration. It is important that horses are given access to an unlimited amount of water (usually 10 gallons or more) that is free of ice at least once a day in sub-zero weather, especially if water is available only in buckets or tubs. If automatic, heated waterers are used, units should be checked daily to make sure they are functioning properly and have not become frozen or have electrical shorts that cause horses to receive shocks when drinking. A tablespoon or two of plain salt can be added to feed to encourage increased water intake and, if feeding pelleted feeds or hay cubes, they can be soaked in water to further increase water intake. Horses should always have free access to salt blocks.
In the winter months many horses will need extra energy to help them maintain their body temperature without decreasing body weight or creating stress due to discomfort for multiple days (cold stress). On average, it has been estimated that the average horse will need about 25% higher energy intake during the coldest winter months. This is only a rough estimate and should not be implemented without considering the following factors. For each degree Fahrenheit the air is below the horse’s lower critical temperature (LCT, temperature below which the horse will start to use more energy for maintaining body warmth than their normal expenditure) the caloric needs will generally increase by about 1%. However, the LCT of an individual horse will depend on the temperatures to which it is accustomed, the amount of body insulation (i.e., length of the hair coat, type of blanket, and amount of body fat), and protection provided by shelters. For example, a lean horse stabled in a heated barn in Georgia with a clipped hair coat may have a LCT of 50ºF, where a shaggy, overweight horse accustomed to living outdoors with only three-sided run-in sheds in Minnesota may have a LCT of 30ºF or lower. If a horse is shivering it is a good indication that it’s LCT has been reached. Piloerection, or when the hair coat is standing on end instead of lying flat, and horses seeking shelter from wind or precipitation are also good indicators that they are in need of higher energy intake. If cold stress is sufficiently prolonged (more than one or two days) and the increased energy needs are not met, the horse will start to lose weight.
Other factors that will alter caloric needs are the activity level, housing, and age of the horse. The lean horse in Georgia is probably being ridden regularly and therefore will have higher energy expenditure than the shaggy, overweight horse that is not being exercised, even though the latter is outdoors with only minimal shelter. Horses over 20 years old have reduced tolerance of weather extremes and will need higher energy intakes than young or middle aged horses housed under the same conditions at temperatures below their LCT.
In all scenarios, in winter months horses should be given at least 1.5 to 3% of their body weight in some form of forage; it could be in the form of long stem hay, chopped hays, forage based cubes, or combinations thereof. They should also have access to salt at all times and unlimited ice free water. If cold stressed, the addition of higher calorie supplements such as grain-based concentrates or high fat supplements like rice bran or edible oils may be warranted if the horses cannot maintain weight on forage based feeds
alone. In horses confined to stalls, use of lower energy grass hays will allow for maximal intake and counter not only boredom but may also reduce incidence of gastric ulcers or stereotypical behaviors associated with confinement and stress. If ventilation in the barn is inadequate, use of the higher protein legume (alfalfa or clover) hays should be minimized to prevent adverse air quality issues due to the increased ammonia excretion. Concentrates formulated for the life stage and activity level of the horse can be used but in amounts that take into account the reduction in activity.
Horses housed outside in winter should have easy access to plenty of forage (Image right).
For horses housed and fed outside in the more severe winter climates, it is strongly recommended that forages be offered in feeders located under a three-sided shelter. Horses kept outdoors will have higher energy requirements and the higher energy forages such as alfalfa or clover hay mixed with grass hay can be used. In all cases, horses should be monitored carefully during cold winter months. Early signs of inadequate water/feed intake will be dry, sparse feces, reduced feed intake, increased wood chewing activity and weight loss. Weight loss can be hard to assess if the horses have long hair coats or are blanketed; therefore, it is imperative that the ribs and neck be palpated regularly to determine if there is loss of condition.
Management and feeding alterations may dictate the need for supplements that would not be required in summer months. Supplementing a poor quality hay diet with a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement specifically formulated for horses is a good idea during the winter months. However, there are no specific “winter supplement” requirements and products that claim such benefits are usually over priced and not necessary. Be sure to carefully evaluate the label claims and avoid products that do not give a complete and specific list of ingredients.
Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
Since lower quality forages are often used in winter in order to maximize access and intakes, there may be lower intakes of anti-oxidant vitamins A, E and C that are lost in prolonged storage. Poorer quality hays may also be lower or imbalanced in mineral content relative to the needs of especially young growing horses and mares in late pregnancy. Therefore use of a single, balanced multi-vitamin and mineral supplement designed for the type of hay and life stage of the horse may be beneficial.
Digestive Aids or Gastric Ulcer Supplements
Horses confined to stalls for prolonged periods of time due to inclement weather may experience psychological stress that can be alleviated in part by provision of free access to forage. However, they could still be at increased risk of gastric ulceration. There is some evidence that use of alfalfa as at least part of the ration may reduce the incidence or severity of ulceration, though the environmental concerns mentioned above will need to be addressed. Papaya and other stomach buffering supplements may be given, but research on these products is scarce; therefore being an educated consumer in terms of the ingredients or any research that was performed will help in making your decision to purchase the supplement.
Immune Boosting Supplements
Stressed horses may also have reduced immune function. Therefore, providing a vitamin E supplement (around 1000 IU/day) and Vitamin C (0.01 gm/kg body weight twice a day) may help decrease the adverse effects of stress during prolonged confinement.
Calming Aids or B-vitamins
These types of supplements have not been proven in unbiased research trials to be effective in calming a nervous horse. However, B-vitamins are water-soluble, so if a horse has an excess, they will excrete what they don’t need in the urine, unlike fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A that are stored in the body and can cause toxicity if in excess.
Usually these supplements consist of probiotics or yeast cultures, which have never been found to alter digestion in a healthy horse. Usually the problem of colic in the winter is due to decreased water intake and that can only be remedied by increasing their intake (for tips here, see the section below).
Hoof quality often is adversely affected in winter due to excessively hard or muddy ground and inactivity. Unfortunately there are no nutritional solutions to this other than insuring adequate protein, energy and mineral intake. Biotin and other hoof supplements work from the cornet band down and usually take 3 to 6 months to have any effect. If you are trying to treat a brittle, cracked hoof due to weather conditions you may need to apply something topically and it is best to talk to your farrier about what product would be best.
The risk of impaction colic is dramatically increased by inadequate water intake, reduced physical activity and lower quality forage intake, all of which can be present in cold winter months. Horses will not drink as much ice-cold water as they will if the water is ice free and at least 40ºF. If water is being provided in buckets it is important that they be checked twice daily and if
the water is starting to freeze that it be replaced. It is not recommended that electrical bucket heaters be used in stalls in a barn unless they are carefully supervised and insulated due to the risk of fire.
Heated stock tanks will help provide plenty of fresh water at a
comfortable temperature for horses housed outside in winter.
For horses housed outdoors, if waterers are located a significant distance from the available shelter and feed, when there is significant snow/ice accumulation the horses may not be able to easily access the water source. If water is provided in a stock tank, it is best to have a heater in the tank. If the use of heaters is not an option you can reduce the chance of the water freezing by insulating the outside of the tank with straw held in place with matting or blankets. If the water does freeze you should break and remove the surface ice at least twice daily when the horses are present and able to drink before it freezes over again. If using automatic waterers with heaters, it is necessary to check them daily in case a malfunction causes the water to freeze or is generating stray electricity. If you have a horse that will not drink adequate amounts of water in the winter, soaking a pound or two of “complete” pelleted or extruded concentrates, beet pulp or hay cubes in one to two gallons of water before feeding once or twice a day will increase water intake. A traditional warm “bran mash” made of wheat bran, at least once a week during the winter months can also be used to increase water intake. However, if wheat bran is included it is important to realize that it is not a laxative and has a very high phosphorus content that can cause problems if fed in large amounts on a daily basis. Other ways to increase water intake are to stimulate thirst by the use of salt, higher protein feeds, and maximizing hay intake. A white salt block should be available free choice at all times or, for those horses who do not use the blocks, a teaspoon of loose salt can be added to their concentrate ration daily. Giving unlimited access to forage is also a good way to increase water intake as long as there is free access to unfrozen water.
Take Home Message
The major nutritional concerns during the winter months include adequate calories to maintain good body condition and adequate water intake to prevent impaction colic. Every situation is different so analyze your horse’s workload, housing and body condition to determine if a change in feed is necessary.
References and Additional Resources
Anderson, Kathy. Winter Care for Horses. 2010. eXtension Article.
Liburt, Nettie and Carey Williams. To Blanket or Not to Blanket? 2008. FS1081 Rutgers NJAES Cooperative Extension.
Marteniuk, Judith. Winter Dehydration in Horses. Did You Know? Article from My Horse University.
Ralston, Sarah and Carey Williams. Winter Care for Horses. 2011. FS1142 Rutgers NJAES Cooperative Extension.
Skelly, Christine. Health Considerations When Housing Horses. 2011.