How to Help Your Horse Thrive This Winter
Winter is just around the corner, but before we hear those sleigh bells jingle it’s important your horse is ready for the first cold snap or snow fall. Here’s a checklist of 10 things a savvy horse owner should have ready before winter.
1. Indoor Housing
Resist the urge to close all windows and doors to keep the barn warm. While the worst drafts should be kept away, shutting up the barn traps dust, ammonia, and mold spores inside. These are bad for the horse’s respiratory system (and yours, too!), and can cause coughs and heaves.
Instead, keep windows and stall doors open where possible, and opt to blanket your horse if he gets chilly.
Being confined all day is an unnatural environment for a horse, so keep an eye out for signs of boredom and frustration in your equine partner. If you must keep him inside, be sure he has a full hay net and salt lick to occupy him. Stall balls and other stall toys can be a great distraction, too.
Ensuring that your horse gets adequate time out of his stall every day is vital to his mental and physical health, so resist the urge to keep him in during bad weather.
If the weather is truly dangerous, take him for a hand walk through the barn, or give him some time at liberty in the indoor arena, if you’re lucky enough to have one.
Horses typically prefer to be outside, even during bad weather. Provided your horse is kept warm and has access to a shelter, he should be just fine left outdoors during the winter.
If you have a small shelter, be aware that herd dynamics may result in lower-ranking horses being excluded from the shelter by more dominant herd mates. You may need to move horses low on the hierarchy to another pasture, or provide them with additional protection like a blanket or second shelter.
Proper footing is important to ensure safe turnout for your horse. If you know any low-lying areas of your pasture are prone to flooding or ice, fence them off before they become dangerous.
Have a good supply of sand ready before temperatures dip, and spread it liberally on any icy patches around the barn or pasture. In a pinch you can use soiled bedding, but keeping horses away from ice is your best defense.
Many horses are reluctant to drink cold water during the winter, and you may have difficulty ensuring your horse gets enough water. Keeping a salt lick available can encourage him to drink more.
You have several options for keeping your horse’s water from freezing. Many owners like to use heated water buckets or immersion heaters in troughs, which do a great job of keeping water at an appetizing temperature.
Low-tech options include adding hot water to freezing buckets, and breaking the ice with a hammer and scooping it out. Alternately, you can place a large inflated rubber ball (larger than your horse’s muzzle) in the water trough. While the top layer of water may freeze, the ball will keep a drinking hole ice-free for your horse, which he can access by knocking the ball with his nose.
While horses may eat the occasional mouthful of snow, this is not a substitute for water! The snow will lower his internal temperature, and he’d need to consume about 10 buckets of snow to equal one bucket of water.
The art and science of feeding horses is a book in itself, but generally you can expect a few changes to your equine’s diet over the winter.
Ideally, your horse will have a pre-winter body condition score from 6 to 7 on the Henneke Body Condition Scale, to provide him with enough fat reserves to stay warm and meet spring at a healthy weight. Increase roughage (hay), not concentrates (grain), to maintain his body condition.
A grass kept horse will need hay to replace his grass intake, but also to help keep him warm. Digestion creates heat, and a horse will need to consume about 20% more roughage during the winter to keep himself warm. If he’s old or a hard keeper (a horse who has a difficult time keeping weight on), this percentage will likely be even higher.
When it comes to buying hay, always buy more than you think you will need. If you’re using round bales, expect to lose the outer layer due to mud and mold. Changing weather patterns also mean that winter may hit you earlier and last longer than what you expect, so stock your hay accordingly.
The decision to blanket depends on many individual factors, such as your horse’s condition and the type of coat he grows. Thin-skinned animals such as Thoroughbreds and Arabians will probably benefit from a blanket, whereas hardier breeds like ponies and draft crosses will likely grow a thick enough coat to stay warm. Any horse that is sick, very old, underweight, or has been clipped will need a blanket.
Shaggy coats and bulky blankets can hide weight loss, so run your hands over his back and ribs regularly to check for weight changes.
If you’re unsure, have a blanket on hand before the weather gets cold. Start off by letting your horse grow his natural winter coat, and feed him plenty of hay. Then, monitor his weight and general condition. If he starts to lose weight or you catch him shivering, increase his hay, add a blanket, or both.
If you’re buying a blanket this year, buy the best one that you can afford and that can handle the rigors of active turnout. The higher denier the outer shell is, the stronger and less likely to rip it will be. The higher the weight of polyfill the warmer the blanket will be, but take care he’s not sweating.
Torn blankets need to be repaired immediately as they lose insulation value. Keep some extra snaps and leg straps on hand, as these are usually the first thing to break. Before winter, test to make sure his old blanket still fits, and inspect it for damage. After winter, thoroughly clean it and make any necessary repairs before you pack it away for the year.
Just like the decision to blanket, the decision to keep or pull horseshoes for the winter keeps some horse owners up at night. This decision is best made by consulting your farrier, as the “right answer” depends on the individual horse.
If your horse is getting time off or just doing occasional light work during the winter, and has healthy feet, you can probably remove his shoes. The bare hoof provides grip and traction on snow and slippery surfaces, the way a plain shoe does not. Keep a pair of Easy Boots (or a similar product) on hand if you’re worried about your horse being without shoes.
Any horse receiving corrective or therapeutic shoeing should be kept on this regime over the winter. The same goes for competition horses who need to be kept in constant work to maintain fitness.
If your horse will be outside in the snow and ice with shoes on, you should provide him with traction studs to stay safe. Ask your farrier about drilling stud holes, and which type of studs to use. You’ll need to have a stud kit ready, which can be purchased ready made or assembled yourself. It should include an assortment of studs (at least 8, with extras in case some get lost), hexagon key, set screws and plugs to keep stud holes clean when not in use.
If you’re interested in a more in-depth explanation of winter hoof care and shoeing options, read our guide to winter horse shoeing.
7. Internal Health
Part of your pre-winter health routine will likely also involve vaccinating for any diseases which are a concern in your area (try the Horse Vaccine Planner from the University of Guelph), and a regular deworming. If you’re using an Ivermectin product, wait until after the first frost has hit before administering it to eliminate bot larvae.
If your horse is getting on in years, cold weather can be harder on tired and aching joints. Pre-winter is a good time to talk to your vet about whether or not joint supplements are right for your aging athlete.
Your horse will need to be able to extract maximum nutrition from his winter feed, so pre-winter is a good time to have his teeth checked, and floated if necessary, by your vet or equine dentist.
Good dental care is important for horses of any age, and particularly for aging horses who may be facing issues like tooth loss or complications from malocclusion, such as sharp or uneven edges on their teeth.
If your horse has never had his teeth examined, considering doing it this year before winter rolls in.
9. Safety Plan
Barn fires kill thousands of animals every year. The Animal Welfare Institute reports that 65% of barn fires occur during the fall and winter. 50% of fatal barn fires are caused by heating equipment, another 30% are suspected to be caused by malfunctioning electrical appliances.
With stats like these, please think long and hard about how badly you ‘need’ a space heater or other appliance in the barn. At the very least, you must unplug (not just turn off) electrical appliances when you leave the barn.
If you haven’t already, now is the time to make an emergency plan outlining what you will do in the event of a fire. After you’ve called 911, how will you evacuate your animals? (remember that panicked horses have been known to run back into their stalls). Is there a clear path for emergency vehicles to get to your barn? Most importantly, how can you prevent a barn fire?
A strict no-smoking policy is a no-brainer. Check your wiring for compromised rubber insulation, and deal with rodent problems immediately. If you can, store hay in a different building than your animals. Ensure there is adequate ventilation around hay bales, and avoid purchasing hay that has been bailed while damp. As it dries, the moisture within will begin to cause heat. If the internal temperature of a bale exceeds 175 F or has greater than 16-20% moisture content, it is a serious fire risk.
Your horse isn’t the only one who requires special attention during the winter; you and your tack do too! Just before winter is a great time to bring your tack inside for a thorough cleaning, conditioning and safety check.
After soaping and oiling leather tack, check for loose girth billets, missing keepers, worn out stitching, cracked leather and broken buckles. Stirrup leathers may have stretched over the past year, particularly on the left side, so this is a good time to rotate them.
Cold weather means cold bits! If you’re tired of warming them up by hand, consider investing in a bit warmer (be sure to test the warmed bit against your own skin to make sure it’s not too warm). A microwaveable heat pack for sore human muscles works just as well, too.
It’s hard to be happy at the barn if you’re cold, so make sure you have appropriate layering clothes, extra gloves and lots of cozy socks on hand. Silk glove liners and a pair of pantyhose under your regular breeches are great ways to add an extra insulating layer without bulk, and a fleece helmet and neck cover is a much safer alternative to a scarf.
Let it Snow!
Winter doesn’t have to mean putting your riding on hold, but it does mean you have to be prepared for Mother Nature.
By having a plan your horse’s care, feeding, housing, equipment and health, you can make sure you’re ready to thrive this winter, and meet the spring with a fit, healthy horse that is ready for whatever adventures are in store for you two next year.
What’s winter like in your neck of the woods, and what do local horse people do to get ready for it? Share your thoughts, tips, and winter pics below!