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!

Horse Nutrition Tips Heading in to Winter

Cooper and Ferris in a snowstorm

Ferris and Cooper enjoy turnout in the winter months; it keeps them fit and happy.

This is my favorite time of year!  It is a time of reflection and relaxation after the show season, when I have time to hit the trails and enjoy the fall colors without the bugs tagging along.   The leaves have changed and like it or not, Old Man Winter is right around the corner.  Shorter days and cooler temperatures are signaling our horses to grow their winter hair coats. 

With these seasonal changes, there are a few good management practices and considerations that can facilitate a smooth and stress free transition into the cooler months of the year. 

  • Salt: Make sure loose white salt along with fresh clean water is available to your horse(s) at all times.  Meeting this requirement helps keep your horse drinking, and may help prevent seasonally related colic episodes due to reduction in water consumption as the days get colder. 
    • Loose salt is preferable to a block, as horses are not partial to licking a cold block as temperatures fall, and may not consume enough to meet requirements.  However, a salt block is preferable to no salt at all.
  • Water: Provide water in an insulated or heated bucket/tub.  Research suggests that water kept between 40 – 65°F is preferable to cold water, and helps maximize consumption.  Make sure your water source is insulated or heated to prevent ice formation when temps dip down below freezing.
    • Check electrical wires and grounding to ensure everything is working properly and is safe.  All wires should be protected to prevent chewing or disconnection from the power supply.
  • Hay: Providing hay as an alternative to fresh pasture as grass goes dormant is a common practice to meet forage and increased energy requirements as it gets colder.  Stock up now!  Having a reliable source of good quality hay that will get you through the winter months is important. 
    • Long stemmed forage is the best, however hay cubes, complete feeds, hay stretchers or replacers can be good solutions if hay is scarce, too expensive, or of poor quality. 
  • Foot care: Having a chat with your farrier about your goals and your horses’ specific needs over the winter is advisable.  You may want to consider non-slip solutions or snow pads for horses that are shod, or potentially taking off shoes, and letting your horse go barefoot for a few months.  In any case, regular trimming and balancing should be continued throughout the winter months although frequency may go down due to slower rate of hoof growth during this time of year.
  • Check in with your veterinarian:  Fall is a good time to check in with your vet to make sure your horse is up to date on recommended vaccinations, dental care, and de-worming.

With a little extra preparation and effort, you and your horse can enjoy a wonderful winter together!