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Horse Facts and Tips
First Posted: Jan 8, 2010
Jan 12, 2014

Winter Issues and Your Horse

by Debora Johnson

With the cold temperatures and inclement weather come some real challenges with horse care. The following will provide some realistic concerns as well as some helpful solutions:

Dehydration and Colic

The change to colder temperatures does have an effect on how to feed. An increase in fiber content helps to keep your horse warm as well as keep weight on during the winter months. Hay is outstanding because the digestion of fiber generates heat. Beet pulp, grain and alfalfa can be added to the diet in small amounts. Check with your vet to help you determine the amount. Small amounts are usually used and an increase may take place over time, if needed. Also, many horse owners may use up to a cup of corn oil per day. This helps keep weight on your horse.

Round Bales of Hay-Are They Safe for Horses?

"It's not about the shape of the bale; it's about how the hay was harvested and stored. If the hay in a round bale was treated properly when it was harvested, it's just as good for horses as hay you'd find in the smaller square bales you're used to. Hopefully, they hay was stored in a barn or under some sort of cover to prevent weathering. I'm sure many of you have come across weathered or moldy square bales, too, so not all those are "safe." Buy your hay from a reputable producer or feed dealer and you should be in good shape. More and more hay producers are getting hay analyzed and making that analysis available. Just ask around and try to take a look at the hay before you buy it.

Also, my rule of thumb is that the hay should be able to be consumed in less than a week if it's going to be placed outside and not under a shelter of some sort. Since many round bales can be over 600 pounds and you're expecting the average 1000-pound horse to eat 20-30 pounds a day, one bale would last your 5 horses about 4 days. Keep in mind, though, this assumes all the horses can reach the hay and it doesn't take into account waste. I usually recommend enough bales so that 3-4 horses can reach the bale at the same time without someone getting left out, and I suggest using a round-bale feeder to help contain the hay and reduce waste. There are round-bale feeders designed for horses, usually with rounded edges/corners. They can be made of plastic or metal - either one is fine.

One other thing to consider is the equipment needed to move or handle a round bale. You're not picking this one up by hand. Also, the hay inside is one long "piece;" you're not flaking out sections of it. If you don't want to deal with round bale feeders, you can unroll a round bale, but you'll need a tractor and a spike to manage it and it won't be a neat process." (by Dr. Shea Porr, Superintendent, MARE Center, 5527 Sullivan's Mill Rd., Middleburg, VA 20117)


Horses tend to drink less water in the winter. The cold weather makes the water cold. When they horses drink the cold water it makes them feel cold! This may cause problems with improper digestion which may lead to impaction colic. Warm water mashes, for example a bran mash, provides water and also helps your horse feel warmer. Beet pulp can also be soaked in hot water for 30 minutes or more. Add more hot water before feeding to your horse. Horses will consume more water when it is warmed above 65ºF. The warm water, in fact, stimulates gastrointestinal motility, further helping to prevent impaction.

"One of the biggest concerns I have during cold weather is making sure the horses drink enough to prevent dehydration and colic issues. The best way to do this is to make sure the water is liquid (it doesn't have to be"warm") and that it's close to the shelter and hay. You can certainly make up "mashes" to try and get more water into the horse, but these are often more work and don't result in nearly the amount of water intake you might expect. Provide plenty of palatable hay, too, as this will encourage them to drink more water. Don't add salt to their feed, though, as too much salt can actually turn them off their feed which can in turn make them drink less. Leave out salt or a trace mineral, feed plenty of good quality hay, and supplement with grain made by a reputable company if it's needed." (by Dr. Shea Porr, Superintendent, MARE Center, 5527 Sullivan's Mill Rd., Middleburg, VA 20117)

Fresh Air

Make sure that your horse's have fresh air in the winter. Stuck in a stuffy barn without any air circulation can cause respiratory problems. Horses with heaves or airway problems do not do well in a stuffy barn. Try to keep dust particles, etc., to a minimum in the barn. Even if the air temperature is a few degrees cooler with some air flow, it is often more beneficial to your horse to have a movement of air in the barn.

Hoof Care

Horse Health Care Basics for Winter

Before the winter gets a grip it is important to take some pre-emptive measures. Attention to your horse's teeth and parasite load are important.
  1. Teeth All About Teeth  Picking An Equine Dentist - Make sure that your horse's teeth have been floated. Points, hooks and ramps can interfere with the chewing of food. This can lead to the loss of weight, indigestion and colic.
  2. Parasites - Have your vet do a fecal. Determine what parasite load, if any, that your horse may have. Kate and I always give a wormer to take care of equine-tapeworms. once a year. This is a good time to do that. Equine Worming Schedule
  3. A note: Ivermectin Gold can be used in a single dose to control tapeworms in your horse. We have used this and had no adverse reactions. Always check with your vet before using! Many horse owners and vets suggest the use of a double dose of Strongid wormer (Strongid P comes in oral paste . The active ingredient is Pyrantel Embonate making Strongid P highly effective against gut dwelling roundworms. A double dose will also provide effective tapeworm control (tapeworm treatment is best in the spring and autumn) Strongid P will also treat benzimidazole resistant strains of small redworms).
  4. Stress - Horses are attuned to any changes in their environment including stable mates, layout, weather, changes in feed, training, and, of course, illness. Be mindful of any changes that have occurred as well as your horse's reaction to them. Horses may go off their feed and suffer deleterious effects from that.

Blankets and Clipping

There are many pros and cons to blanketing your horse. It does not have to be just winter when this is a concern to horse owners. There are a myriad of coverings for horses from turn out sheets, to rain sheets, to fly sheets, to rugs, etc. There are just as many differences in horses, disciplines, environments, etc. The following link will provide you with most answers to your questions Blanketing Your Horse.

I am not a fan of clipping your horse. In some disciplines this may prove to be necessary. The less clipping, in my opinion, the better. Try to stick with a "Fox Hunter" clip if you must clip. It allows your horse to cool out after work, but provides some winter protection because there is still coat.

The following article appeared in From the "Horse's Back" and is reproduced on HorseHints in accordance with the publication rules.

Virginia Equine Extension
Northern Virginia
Volume 4, Number 2, February 2010
Dr. Shea Porr, Superintendent
MARE Center
5527 Sullivan's Mill Rd.
Middleburg, VA 20117

"From the Horse's Back"

Ok, I mentioned the COLD last month so I won't do it again, but I'm sure you're all aware of the impending snow so let's talk about staying WARM! Horses that have lived outside during this winter have developed and honed their natural mechanisms for keeping themselves comfortable: long hair, body fat, and activity. That long hair will lift off their bodies and trap air underneath, creating an insulating pocket for warmth. Keep in mind that blankets "break" this system because they force the hair to stay up against the body. You may think you're helping to keep them warm but you might be undermining their natural defenses. Also, their natural body fat reserves (subcutaneous fat) add insulation to help keep them warm. This doesn't mean you should feed the horse to be fat, because the negatives can outweigh the positives, but having your horse be around a Body Condition Score of 6 in the winter is perfectly acceptable. Finally, they'll run around for short bursts to heat themselves up and then stand in a group to share the warmth. They should be provided with some sort of shelter or wind break to enable them to maximize this defense. This doesn't have to be a stall, and closing them up that way prevents them from being active and sharing warmth.

The best thing you can do for them is provide them with shelter, fresh water, plenty of forage, and access to salt. This may mean you'll need to get out there and shovel a path to the waterer, but that'll keep you WARM as well!


For More Information:

Five Tips to Keep Horses Healthier this Winter
UK College of Agriculture Weather Center Warns of Livestock Cold Stress

Horse Facts and Tips