Cold Weather Care and Feeding of Horses

Horse in pasture during snow fall

Cold weather, particularly below freezing temperatures and cold rains, requires that owners pay careful attention to their horses to make certain that the horses maintain weight through the winter months.

First, make certain the horses are at least a body condition score of 5 or 6, meaning that the horses are carrying some fat cover over their ribs. Body condition should be monitored by physical examination at least monthly as long hair can hide weight loss. This is particularly important for older horses. The horses should also be kept up to date on dental care and overall health care, including appropriate deworming. It is a good idea to let horses go barefoot with proper hoof care during the winter.

Second, adequate water, above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, should be available at all times. If water sources freeze, the ice should be broken at least twice per day. Owners should NOT rely on horses eating snow for their water supply. A 1200-pound horse will require 12-15 gallons of water per day during cold weather. Having inadequate water available or water that is too cold for horses to drink comfortably may contribute to impaction colic. A horse that does not have adequate water available will also decrease feed intake, which may lead to loss of body condition. Salt should be available free choice, preferably loose salt rather than a salt block as horses may not lick a cold salt block.

Third, provide shelter from cold rains and wind. Horses remain remarkably comfortable in cold weather if they are dry and have shelter from the wind. Cold rains mat down the hair coat, reducing the insulation value of the hair and causing the horses to lose body heat.

Fourth, feed more! A horse’s digestible energy requirement increases for each degree below the thermal neutral zone. Wind chill increases the energy requirement also. Hay or high fiber products produce more heat during digestion than do grains, so adding extra good quality roughage to the diet is a good option. Grain intake can also be adjusted to maintain the desired body condition, but needs to be adjusted gradually.

  • A 1200 lb. horse at maintenance requires about 17.7 Mcal (17,700 Calories) of DE for maintenance.
  • Each degree C below Lower Critical Temperature (Anywhere from 5 degrees C or 40 degrees F down, depending on what the horse is used to.) increases DE requirement about 2.5%. (NRC, 6th Edition, page 10-11.)
  • Converting to Fahrenheit, each degree drop requires about 1.375%, so if the temperature drops from 10 degrees F to 0 degrees F, the DE requirement may increase 13.75% to 20.13 Mcal or 20,130 Calories.
  • This increase of 2430 Calories would require an additional 2.8 pounds of alfalfa grass hay to maintain body condition.
  • If the horse does NOT get the additional DE, the horse could lose a little over a quarter of a lb. per day.
  • If we have 3 months of cold weather, it is very easy for a horse to drop a full body condition score.

Proper winter care will help assure that your horse is ready for winter activities and is ready for spring when it finally arrives!

5 thoughts on “Cold Weather Care and Feeding of Horses

    • Hi Chri – There are lots of opinions on blanketing out there! Most horses are fine as long as they don’t get wet from freezing rain or a really wet/heavy snow, and as long as they have a lean-too where they can get out of the wind. If you horse is older, underweight, or the weather is likely to be wet/rainy, then a blanket would be a good option. Anything outside those parameters is really up to what you feel is best for your horse!
      Thank you ~ Gayle R.

  1. My horse is in his late 20s this year I have a turn out blanket on him, he seems to like it. The bkanket is waterproof and breathable at what temp should I take the coat off in the spring the 40s or 50 ? I live in Indiana. Thank you

    • Hello Tricia, Thanks for the question! This is really dependent on your horse, your preferences, and the overall weather – both moisture and temperature.

      First, if your horse is sweating, and/or shedding out profusely, then it’s time to ditch the blanket! Second, if it’s still cold & rainy, it might not be a bad idea to leave it on him, particularly if he struggles to maintain weight in cooler weather. But if it’s sunny and 40 or 50 out, then it would be a good time to take the blankets off – he’ll probably be getting too warm. If you want to keep him covered, a turnout sheet instead of a full blanket might be an option for you!

      Thanks ~ Gina T.

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