Around the Barn: Winter Preparations

Even though this is a horse nutrition blog, nutrition is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to keeping your horses happy and healthy.  As we head in to cold winter months, I thought I’d share some of my favorite tips for prepping your horse and some of the gear that goes with him!

  • Blanketing:  In general, horses adapt well to decreasing temperatures by growing an insulating hair coat.  As long as they have shelter to get out of wind and precipitation, and are able to meet their increased energy (calorie) requirement, they do quite well and can tolerate sub-zero temperatures. 
    • Keep in mind, the insulating value of the hair coat is compromised if it gets wet.  As temperatures drop below the critical temperature which is around 50°F on average, horses require more energy to stay warm, which is best provided by increasing the forage in their diet, not grain. 
    • Blanketing may be a good option if:
      • There is no shelter during turn out
      • The horse’s hair coat is clipped
      • You have a very young or very old horse that might not be efficient at maintaining body temperature
      • The horse is under-conditioned or under weight
    • Finding a blanket that fits well, is waterproof, breathable, and the proper weight (light, medium, heavy fill) based on the conditions are important considerations. 
    • If you already own blankets, dig them out before you need them and check to ensure they are clean, in good repair, and still fit your horse properly. 
    • Never blanket a wet horse, or put a wet or damp blanket on a horse.
  • Don’t forget to periodically remove the blanket and assess body condition, and check for any rub marks that the blanket may be causing.
  • Winterizing the barn and trailer: Fall is a good time to prepare your barn and trailer for colder weather.  Cleaning, installing or checking insulation, replacing screens with windows, ensuring ventilation is adequate, insulating water sources, cleaning and safety-checking heaters and electrical systems, are recommended.  
    • In the barn:
      • Check the roof for structural integrity and leaks
      • Clean gutters and install snow slides if needed
      • Plan for snow removal and de-icing walkways, if applicable.
    • In the trailer
      • Check the floor, lights, brakes, and tires and replace or provide maintenance as needed. 
      • Put together an emergency kit for you and your horse in the event of a break-down in winter weather. 
      • If you are on the road frequently, consider road-side-service for equestrians in the event of an emergency. 

Good luck, stay safe, and take a moment to enjoy the site of your horse playing in the snow if you are lucky enough to see some!

Feeding Horses in the Winter

Horse in pasture during snow fall

As I was reviewing the feed program for one of my client’s lesson horses, she mentioned ordering corn to add to the feed for the winter. She felt this would provide the horses extra warmth in the cold weather. This is a common winter practice with many farms, and I explained to my client that she was correct to increase the horse’s caloric intake with falling temperatures. There is a much better alternative to corn, though – it is much more efficient and effective to increase the forage portion of the diet to help create internal heat in the winter. This is due to the fermentation process the forage goes through in the hindgut, and the heat that process gives off.

The term “critical temperature” is used determine at what temperature a horses nutritional requirements change to maintain normal body temperature. I use the temperature of 40 F as a benchmark for calculating winter diets. In essence for every 1 degree below critical temperature, I increase the horse’s caloric intake by 1%. So, if my 1000 pound horse were receiving 18.6 Mcal (18,600 calories per day), I would increase his diet by 1860 calories when the temperature goes to 30 degrees (10 X 186). If my hay has tested at 1 Mcal (1000 calories) per pound, an additional 2 pounds of hay will help my horse maintain his body condition at that temperature.

I also encourage my clients to feed a well fortified concentrate during the winter months. The lack of fresh pasture, limited sunlight hours, and often diminished hay quality require better fortification. Make sure your horse feed provides adequate levels of vitamin A, D and E.  Feeds offering probiotics and prebiotics, as well as biotin are also encouraged. If you are feed a grass hay or alfalfa hay, make sure your calcium and phosphorus levels are also balanced accordingly in your feed.

Water consumption is imperative during winter months. Make sure that the buckets are free from ice and frozen debris. In the winter horses will consume 10 to 12 gallons of water per day. Ideally the water temperature should be at 50-65 F to encourage drinking.

Examine your horses body condition score monthly during the winter to maintain a healthy horse!