Winter Horse Care: What To Do With Horses In Cold Weather

winter horse care

Fresh air and exercise are just as important in winter
as they are in summer

You need to prepare for winter horse care before winter actually begins. The last two days here in Buffalo, New York we have been in the middle of a blizzard and luckily we are pretty well prepared for what to do with horses in cold weather.

Even with good preparation, blizzard conditions are a challenge. Murphy’s law guarantees that SOMETHING will happen in extreme weather conditions!

Keeping the barn doors clear of snow and ice so they don’t freeze shut, clearing paths to the bedding and manure piles, hauling water from the house if the hydrants or pump in the barn freeze are pretty unpleasant when the wind chill is 20 degrees below zero!

It’s all part of the joy of horse ownership. 🙂

Luckily the typical winter day does not take place during extreme weather conditions. Nonetheless, you will want to make sure to pay attention to some things that you don’t normally think about during the summer months.

One of the most obvious aspects of winter horse care is warmth and shelter. We keep our horses stabled year-round. For horses that live in pasture you need to have some type of 3-sided shed where they can go to get out of the wind, snow and rain.

winter horse care

Chip & Gemini enjoying a lovely winter day!

If you keep your horse stabled you will want to make sure that there is enough ventilation in your barn, otherwise you run the risk of your horse developing respiratory problems.

Also make sure that stalls are kept clean to avoid inhaled ammonia gases, and that you do not have dusty hay. This is a terrible combination that will cause your horse to develop heaves, aka COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, an asthma-like condition that is very difficult to manage.

As for warmth, a horse’s winter coat is generally all they need unless they are very young or old, just moved from a warmer climate to a colder one, are body clipped, are in poor health or underweight.

As long as your horse stays dry, and is not matted down with mud, its winter coat will trap warm air next to its body.

Another aspect of winter horse care is feeding. You may want to increase your horses hay a little in the colder weather. The fiber in the hay metabolizes slowly and helps keep the horse warm as it is digested. Normally a horse should consume 1-2% of its body weight in hay each day (or 10-20 pounds for a 1000 pound horse). During colder weather you may want to increase this by 10-15 pounds.

Make sure you keep an eye on water consumption! In the colder weather, or if there are chunks of ice in his water, your horse may not drink enough. Impaction is a possibility if your horse is eating plenty of hay but not drinking an adequate amount of water.

You can encourage him to drink by making sure he gets plenty of fresh water or even heating the water a bit. An interesting fact about warmer water is that if given a choice between warm and cold, a horse will choose the colder water. BUT if given warmer water a horse will drink more of it. So keep that in mind when pondering what to do with your horse in cold weather!

what to do with horses in cold weather

Mary Katherine & Sage out for a
ride in the snow

What about exercise??? Horses definitely need exercise even when it’s cold. We tend to worry about it being too cold to ride or work our horses.

If you don’t feel like riding you will want to longe your horse to help him keep fit. Turnout alone won’t do it. And when you try to “bring him back” in the spring it is going to take you longer and longer each year as he ages. Although maybe it won’t matter since it may take YOU longer and longer too as you age, LOL! 🙂

But, seriously, keep him on some kind of regular exercise program, even three times a week. If it’s very cold and he’s body clipped you may want to use a quarter sheet when riding. That will keep his large muscle groups warm. It’s rarely ever too cold to work your horse, more like to cold for YOU to work your horse.

A good winter horse care tip for when your horse goes out, or you ride outside, is to rub some oil or vaseline on the bottom of his feet to keep him from getting ice balls caught in his hoof, especially if he’s wearing shoes. Sometimes those ice balls are just impossible to get out!

Also, PLEASE make sure to warm your horse’s bit before you put it in his mouth.

A final thought about winter horse care is to make sure that your horse is not put away damp or wet. Thoroughly dry and curry your horse before blanketing or, if he is still damp, make sure he wears a breathable cooler or blanket until he is completely dry. If you neglect to do this he may develop rain rot or some other unpleasant fungal or bacterial skin condition.

If you have any good winter horse care tips to share please let us know by leaving a comment! We all appreciate it. 🙂


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