Winter Horse Care

One of the first things on everyone’s mind when it comes to winter is whether or not their horse is cold. Our chart gives guidelines for blanketing, but much of this topic is common sense. Consider that:

• Very young and very old horses have more trouble regulating their temperatures.

• Horses with little body fat and/or a thin coat have less insulation.

• A horse that is shivering is cold.

Outside Horses

Many horses that spend a good bit of their time outside will grow a nice, thick winter coat that serves them well without blanketing. An exception is when they get soaked through to the skin.

Your horse generates body heat by eating hay. A turnout blanket needs to withstand the torture a loose horse will give it.

If the horse is going to be outside most of the time, you’ll need to have a shelter that protects him from the prevailing winds and from precipitation. Horses with access to a shelter will lose 20 to 30% less body heat than those without protection. You can also keep a blow dryer and several heavy towels stocked for times when they don’t come in out of the rain and cold until it’s too late.

If this is a group situation, pay close attention to the herd dynamics to make sure all horses have access to the shelter. A horse low in the pecking order is both most likely to be chased out and most likely to need the shelter. Equip your shed with hay racks even if you have a separate hay bunker, for times when the weather and/or ground conditions are particularly severe.

It’s important that the shed have good drainage and be accessible for mucking. Sheds should be bedded to encourage horses to lie down. A horse that is lying down loses less body heat.

Stabled Horses

While you wouldn’t call most barns warm in the winter, compared to living outside, horses in barns are considerably less challenged. The temperatures are at least more consistent and adapting is much easier. And there’s usually no wind-chill factor inside the barn.

However, their coats usually aren’t as full as a horse living outside, and they will be less tolerant of severe weather so don’t be surprised if you need to blanket for turnout or possibly even one while they’re stabled, if the temperature dips down far enough. Allow enough air circulation to avoid extreme differences between in-barn and outside temperatures so that horses can adapt, but remember it’s harder to keep warm if you’re standing still. Blanket as needed.


There are two times when you need to increase the food/calorie intake of horses: 1) When there is a sudden cold snap, and 2) When temperatures are consistently below 5?° F.

A variety of formulas are used to determine when the horse needs more feed and how much to give them. However, this can be greatly simplified by feeding hay free choice. The horse will regulate intake according to needs. Hay isn’t a very concentrated calorie source but is the preferred food for winter because the bacterial fermentation of the hay in the horse’s colon generates heat.

If you’re experiencing severe cold and the horse can’t hold its weight with free-choice hay alone, start to gradually add or increase grain. Beet pulp is another good choice because you can feed it warm and use it to help meet the horse’s water requirements.


Beet pulp can soak up four times its original dry weight in water, significantly more than wheat bran. Wheat bran is the traditional favorite for a hot mash, but its unbalanced calcium phosphorus ratio can cause problems if used regularly. And, if you’re going to feed it, you really should make it a regular part of the diet to avoid gut upset. Fortunately, beet pulp is heavier on calcium than phosphorus and a 75:25 % mixture of these two (75% beet pulp, 25% wheat bran) works out just right.

Keeping a close watch on your horse’s body condition and weight in winter is important in evaluating your feeding program. Don’t trust your eye. Thick winter coats can be deceiving, especially when the hairs are standing on end, as they will when it’s really cold out.

With a little practice, you can learn to feel how much covering the horse has over the ribs. Thick coats also interfere with accurate weight taping unless you really pull the tape tight. Feel along the horse’s neck just above the groove for the jugular vein to see if the bones of the cervical spine are more prominent. Right after you take off a blanket is the best time to look at how round the rump is since the coat will be laying flat.

Water and Salt

Yes, your horse needs salt in winter, too. Salt, AKA sodium chloride, is essential for maintaining normal amounts of water in the body. Without it, some degree of dehydration will be present, predisposing the horse to impactions and faulty circulation. Impaction colics are common in the winter, related in part to the horse not drinking enough and not getting enough salt.

In winter the horse still needs a minimum of one ounce of salt (two tablespoons) every day to replace normal losses. Some can be added to the feed to ensure consumption or it can be left for the horse to eat free choice, although you should monitor to ensure he’s eating an adequate amount.

While salt helps guarantee your horse will want to drink enough, he also has to have adequate drinkable water available. Snow is not a satisfactory substitute for water! Horses will not drink water that is extremely cold.

Heated buckets or troughs are ideal. If this isn’t possible, buckets can be wrapped with insulating material and enclosed in a wooden box to keep the horses from chewing on it. Some people add a few teaspoons of salt to the water, which is safe and will make it less likely to freeze, but you will have to find your individual horse’s preference level. Too much salt and the horse may not drink as freely. The horse is most likely to drink freely during and after eating hay.

If you have hot water at the barn, watering with very warm water at the same time the horses are fed will delay the time it takes to cool to an uncomfortable temperature. If you don’t have hot water at the barn, bring a gallon of boiled water with you in a thermos. Even this will help. However, you’ll need to be consistent about offering warmed water or the horse may try to wait too long to drink until you bring it to him again.


Winter is often a good time to give your horse’s feet a break from shoes. If you do keep shoes on, don’t let the interval between trims get longer just because you’re not riding as much. A horse’s feet do often grow slower in winter than in warm weather but don’t assume that.

Frozen uneven ground can make any horse look crippled and shoes are no help here. Rigid plastic pads under the shoes will help, but the simplest protection comes from boots, which also provide good traction.

Ice can cause serious falls and injuries. Studs and borium give the best traction, followed by boots, then bare feet. Plan ahead for ice. To provide paths for outside horses on frozen ground, use a scattering of sawdust or kitty litter, but still move slowly with the horses acr oss these areas.

For the ultimate in winter pampering, treat your horse to a hot hoof poultice. We like Hawthorn Sole Pak (, 765-768-6585), paddies warmed up in the microwave for a few seconds but you can heat regular poultice material inside a sandwich bag the same way.

Skin and Coat Care

The horse’s winter coat does a masterful job of trapping heat, but at the price of also trapping dirt, dead skin and skin secretions. Older or debilitated horses with weakened immune systems are especially prone to developing skin infections like “rain rot” (Dermatophilus congolensis).

Horses whose thick coats get soaked repeatedly, or that are left in wet blankets, are most likely to develop problems. These infections can smolder until they are so bad that large areas of the body are involved and large scab build ups are projecting through the coat. Do a thorough, deep grooming at least once a week. Keep at least one spare blanket available and dry wet ones promptly.

Dealing with winter coats when you continue to ride through the winter is especially daunting. A trace clip will make your job easier without sacrificing all of the benefits of the winter coat. If you can afford one, a grooming vacuum makes the job infinitely easier and is an effective way to keep the depths of the coat clean.

Bottom Line

Winter care boils down to taking time to watch for subtle problems. Weight loss and dehydration can sneak up on you quickly. Shivering should not be ignored, as it means the horse is cold and/or wet. “An ounce of prevention” never meant more.

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