9 Winter Horse Health Problems You Need to Look Out For

07/09/2022

You’ve probably been around horses for a while, so you know that despite being such large and powerful animals, they can suffer from a staggering number of illnesses and ailments. And every season brings its own healthcare concerns, whether it’s disease-carrying insects in the summer or damp chills in the winter.


We’ll look at nine of the most common health concerns horses face during the winter and what you can do to prevent, recognize and treat them.

Healthy chestnut horse with blaze stands in winter field
Photo by Vedran Miletić from Pexels

Dehydration 

Surprised to see this on a list of equine winter worries? While we usually think of summer sweat as a major dehydrator, dehydration is just as much of a concern (if not more, depending on the temperature where you live) during the winter. 

A typical 1000 lb. horse needs 10-12 gallons of water a day for optimum health. It doesn’t take much for a horse to start suffering from mild dehydration; even losing 3-4% of his body moisture can be enough to negatively impact his well-being. 

Dehydration can happen any time of year, but winter weather can set the stage for unexpected dehydration problems. 

How to Keep a Horse Hydrated in Winter

The most common cause of winter dehydration is frozen buckets and freezing cold water.

While many horses will drink cold water, they’ll drink more water if it’s slightly warm – about 45°–65°F. Avoiding cold water is not necessarily a bad move on his part, as he’ll need to burn precious calories to warm up after a cold drink, but you still want your horse to be comfortable drinking as much as he needs to.

2 horses drink water from a heated trough in winter
Image by rihaij from Pixabay

Heated automatic waterers, immersion heaters (a water heater placed inside a regular water trough), insulated buckets, or just adding hot water from a kettle are all good ways to keep water at a tempting temperature.

If freezing is a problem and you don’t have electrical service at the barn, a large ball like a Jolly Ball floating in the trough can help. Horses can move the ball with their nose, leaving a muzzle-sized drinking hole (and maybe getting a little entertainment, too). Failing that, keep a hammer and a sieve beside the water trough – you’ll need to break the ice regularly and scoop out the frozen shards so they don’t damage his sensitive gums and mouth.

How to Encourage a Horse to Drink More Water in Winter

Beyond keeping water at a reasonable temperature, there are a few tricks you can use to encourage your horse to drink more water. Try adding a flavoring, like apple juice. This is a common trick to help traveling horses acclimatize more readily to unknown water sources and can help make winter water more tempting. 

Keeping free-choice salt available can encourage horses to drink more, as well as ensure they get much-needed minerals. About 2oz of loose salt for a 1000 lb horse should help stimulate his thirst. 

You can also sneak moisture into his diet in other ways, such as soaking or steaming hay, which adds valuable moisture while making the forage more digestible. Soaked hay cubes or sprouted fodder (which you can grow yourself indoors) are other clever ways to introduce extra moisture into his diet. 

Whatever you do, do not rely on your horse eating snow as a supplement for drinking water. While horses will ingest the occasional mouthful of snow, too much snow can cause a drop in internal body temperature, forcing his body to burn calories to stay warm. 

Colic 

Colic happens every time of year. However, there are certain concerns more prevalent in winter that can increase the likelihood of colic. One of the most common types of winter colics is impaction colic

As the name implies, impaction colics are caused by a blockage in the horse’s intestinal tract, causing it to stop moving properly—gas and food build up behind the impaction, causing pain and a distended stomach. 

How to Prevent Winter Colic

The protocol for reducing the chances of impaction colic in winter is largely the same as any other time of year; lots of forage fed little and often, plenty of turnout and hydration. 

The problem in winter is often due to changes in management practice. For instance, grass-kept horses may be brought inside or confined to stalls and sheds during the first snowstorm, which can cause colic. Instead, try to stick to the following management guidelines:

As much turnout as possible. Turnout has a ton of mental and physical health benefits for your horse – many small meals, constant but gentle physical movement, and stress-reducing social interaction. 

snow-covered bay pony rolls during winter turnout
Image by greb from Pixabay

Horses are often brought inside during the winter, but this is usually more for the convenience of handlers than the horse. Going from being outside 24/7 during the warmer months to spending most of his time confined to a stall will be hard on his gut and made worse if this confinement is combined with high concentrate diets. 

Focus on forage. If you can, eliminating or reducing grain in favor of hay is a great place to start. Having regular hay available provides plenty of bulk and keeps the intestines moving, important for preventing colic.  

However, it’s even more important to keep drinkable water on offer at all times, especially if your horse is going from grass to hay. Hay is much drier than grass, which can increase the likelihood of dehydration and impaction colics. Soaking or steaming hay before feeding can help increase moisture content and improve digestibility, but water must be available at all times if a horse is on dry hay.

Keep them hydrated. Yup, you already know keeping your horse hydrated this winter is essential. Not just for optimal functioning but also to prevent colic. A well-hydrated horse can produce enough saliva to break down his food, meaning it passes more easily through his gut. 

Respiratory Problems 

Respiratory problems are common and can happen at any time of year – some experts suggest that as many as 80% of stall-kept horses will suffer from some kind of respiratory issue. But there are a few factors specific to winter weather and changing management practices that make breathing problems like coughing and heaves even more likely in winter.

How to Prevent Winter Respiratory Problems 

The best way to prevent winter respiratory problems is to improve airflow as much as you can: 

  • Keep shed doors and windows open as much as possible.  
  • If using split stall doors, keep the top half open. 
  • If drafts are a serious problem, consider a blanket or old cooler over an open window to reduce the chill while allowing ventilation. 
  • If horses get chilly, add an extra blanket before you close a window. 
  • Store dusty things like hay, straw, and shavings away from the barn if you can. Not only will this improve the fire safety of the barn, but it can also minimize unnecessary dust. 
  • Clean, dust, and de-cobweb as much as possible. 
  • Be aware that sweeping can stir up settled dust particles. Douse aisles lightly with a watering can or mist from a hose to keep the dust down.

You can also implement different feeding practices during the winter (or better yet, year-round!) to minimize the amount of dust your horse has to contend with. 

  • Avoid feeding dusty hay, but recognize that even the best hay will have a bit of dust in it. 
  • If you can, feed hay from the ground instead of hay nets or hay racks. 
  • Shaking out dry hay before feeding, instead of just throwing him a flake, to release dust before it makes it to your horse. 
  • Soak forage before feeding, unless it’s below freezing. 

Even with all these methods in place, consider limiting time indoors as much as possible (including time in dusty indoor arenas, too). If your horse gets time off or a reduced workload during the winter, consider keeping him at grass for the season instead of indoors. 

Be wary of working him too hard in cold weather as well. It can be tempting to use the “off-time” to get him in shape before show season, but heavy work when the air is frigid can be hard on his lungs and aggravate any existing respiratory issues. Here are some alternate ideas for you and your horse to enjoy the winter season together.

Fungal Infections 

If you live in a part of the country that gets a lot of rainfall during the winter, chances are you’re already familiar with annoying infections like scratches or rain rot.  While neither of these afflictions is caused by the rain itself, the bacteria that cause them thrive in the damp environments that often accompany winter weather. 

Scratches (aka Mud Fever, Cracked Heels, Greasy Heel)

Horses with pink skin and white hair are most prone to scratches, but any horse can get it. You can spot a case of scratches by looking for red, crusty, or inflamed skin at the back of the pastern, near the heel bulb. 

Once a horse has scratches, you’ll need to regularly clean and dry the area and apply a zinc oxide-based ointment regularly. Always dry the backs of pasterns carefully –  you may want to keep a separate clean cloth just for this to avoid spreading the infection.  Don’t cover the area, as this risks trapping more moisture inside, encouraging the bacteria to breed. 

Take extra care when treating scratches- they can be painful, and even the calmest horse may react badly to having a scab picked at.

It can take weeks for a case of scratches to clear up. But if you don’t see any improvement after a week of cleaning and applying ointment, or if the scratches are so painful that the horse is lame, give your vet a call.

How to Prevent Scratches 

Preventing scratches usually comes down to keeping the area the horse is standing in as clean and dry as possible. 

Clean stalls regularly, of course, and do your best to minimize time spent in a muddy pasture, which is easier said than done. 

If your turnout area is muddy, particularly around popular spots like hay bales, gates, and water troughs, consider changing the location of these high-use areas and rotating water and hay locations.

Improving drainage or adding rubber mud grates around high-mud areas can also help get hooves up and out of the mud. 

Paint horse in blanket turned out in mud
Image by Paula Morin from Pixabay

Rain Rot 

Rain rot is another poorly named fungal infection that isn’t caused by rain at all, but by a naturally-occurring bacteria called Dermatophilus congolensis

While this bacteria is usually not a problem, it can get out of hand in damp environments. You’ll notice flaky skin, bald spots, or tufts of hair falling out, and the horse may rub against fence posts or doors to try and alleviate the itch. 

Horses can get rain rot in the winter if left without adequate shelter (although don’t be surprised if, despite your best efforts, they still prefer to stand outside in the cold and the rain).  

In winter, rain rot can also happen as a result of wearing a too-heavy blanket for too long. Repeated sweating and drying underneath a blanket creates the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. What’s worse, the condition can easily spread and go undetected under a blanket. 

How to Prevent Rain Rot

To prevent rain rot, only blanket as much as necessary and change blankets regularly. While a wardrobe of winter blankets can get pricey, consider using lightweight coolers as a base layer under the more expensive outer layer. 

Even if your horse is blanketed, having a shelter big enough to comfortably fit the entire herd is critical. 

Injuries and Soft Tissue Trauma 

Horses are notoriously accident-prone, and winter is no exception. Winter conditions present a few more unique concerns in terms of injuries, mostly related to poor footing conditions.

Slips and falls on ice, hard-packed snow and slippery grass are common, especially in horses who wear shoes year-round. Pulling shoes for the winter is a good way to give your horse a little extra traction, but there are other options as well. 

Check out our Ultimate Guide to Winter Horse Shoeing for more inspiration and ideas to manage your horse’s feet during the winter. 

Pony wearing turnout halter stands in winter trees
Photo by Anton Andreassen from Pexels

Preventing Winter Injuries in Horses

You can do your best to prevent trauma from slips and falls by ensuring your horse has adequate footing and traction. 

If there are areas of the barn or stable yard that are prone to ice, treat them with sand or salt. If you can, remove snow before it has a chance to compact, or at least shovel horse-sized walkways for commonly used routes and just focus on keeping those areas as slip-free as possible. 

When it comes to minor kick and bite injuries at turnout, unfortunately “horses will be horses” and there’s only so much you can do to prevent it. Try to group horses in complementary herds  (for instance, two alpha mares may have lengthy “discussions” about who is really in charge, which can result in kicks and bites). 

Also bear in mind that many horses change barns before winter hits, and introducing a new horse to a herd will disrupt the normal hierarchy (which is extremely important for an equine’s mental health), and there may be some squabbling until a new hierarchy is established. This is usually nothing to worry about unless a horse is being “bullied” to the point that he’s not getting enough to eat or drink and risks losing condition, in which case you should talk to the barn manager about a new set of pasture mates.

2 old horses wear winter turnout blankets outside as it snows
Photo by Chanita Sykes from Pexels

Aches and Pains

Any horse parent to a senior horse (or even just a senior themselves!) knows that cold, damp weather can be unkind to joints. For senior horses or middle-aged horses with a competitive past, winter chills can exacerbate arthritis or other joint ills. 

Preventing Winter Joint Problems 

While you can’t stop your horse from aging, there is plenty you can do to support healthy joints. 

Consider speaking to your vet about your horse’s individual situation and possibly supplementing with MSM, Hyaluronic Acid, or Omega 3 fatty acids year round.  

As your horse ages, it may be necessary to restrict or reduce his workload (think smaller fences, fewer sharp turns, or going down a competitive level) to help him age well. If you do high-impact sports like jumping or eventing, or if he had a previous career as a racehorse, be considerate with rest days and monitor his movement to be on the lookout for signs of trouble.

Winter Walk Exercises

grey dressage horse does collected walk exercise
Image by Pezibear from Pixabay

While rest is important for hard-working joints, regular gentle exercise is one of the best ways to keep him supple during the winter. Even if he’s been given the winter off from training, something as small as an occasional working walk is enough to keep his mind and body fit.

Focus on building a strong walk, working on walk/halt, medium/ free walk, collected/extended walk transitions (if you’re training at the appropriate level and your horse understands these gaits). 

Back up, turns and lateral movements are a nice mental refresher for your horse, and a great opportunity for you to focus on your position and nailing smooth, balanced transitions. And if you get bored at the walk, try doing the whole thing in 2-point! 

Hoof problems  

Just like the fungal infections that cause scratches and rain rot, the bottom of the feet are also subject to their share of winter problems. These seasonal scourges can take the form of bacterial infections like thrush, or more serious issues like laminitis which can result in founder. 

Thrush

While thrush can happen any time of year, the wet and muddy winter conditions and increased stall time that usually accompany winter can exacerbate the likelihood of foot infections. 

Thrush is a bacterial infection caused by standing in dirty or damp conditions. It often affects the hind feet, although the front feet are not immune. Horses with long low heel conformation tend to have deeper, more narrow sulci (the indented area in the middle of the frog) are more likely to get thrush. 

You’ll notice thrush by its foul smell and a greasy black discharge that oozes from the frog (the fleshy, triangular part of the horse’s foot). The frog may be warm or sore to the touch. In severe cases, thrush can cause the entire lower limb to swell. 

closeup of two hind hooves standing outside in snow
Image by rihaij from Pixabay copy

Preventing Winter Thrush

Help reduce the likelihood of thrush by keeping the horse’s living area as clean and dry as possible. 

Even if horses are turned out with shoes off all winter and slowed winter hoof growth means you can stretch trims to every couple of months, it’s still important that you give your horse a regular hoof pick to check for signs of thrush.

If you suspect an infection, immediately move the horse to a clean, dry stall or yard. The foot needs to be thoroughly cleaned and the infected flesh pared away so that air can get at the infection; call your farrier for this procedure. Regular cleaning and scrubbing with a diluted iodine solution will help kill the remaining bacteria.

Laminitis and Founder 

Laminitis is an infection of the foot laminae (the thin white line that connects the hoof wall to the sole). Laminitis can result in founder, an excruciating condition in which the coffin bone in the middle of the foot becomes unstable and begins to rotate. 

Laminitis can be a concern in winter if your horse’s grain ration is not cut back in conjunction with the decrease in exercise most horses experience in the winter. 

There is no cure for laminitis. Once a horse has foundered once, he is at increased risk for future bouts, which is why prevention is so important. 

Results of foundering can range from short-term lameness to euthanasia in extreme cases. 

You can spot laminitis a few ways: the horse will be unwilling to move and may adopt a tell-tale “sawhorse” stance. The coronary band (where the hoof meets the pastern) will be warm to the touch and a pulse may be felt through the back of the leg. A foundered horse may also lie down, or be very unwilling to pick up a foot. 

Preventing Laminitis 

Too much grain (carbohydrates, specifically), coupled with insufficient exercise or energy burn can lead to this painful condition. 

Non-working horses must have their grain ration severely reduced or eliminated altogether over the winter, unless they’re a “special circumstance”, such as a senior citizen, pregnant mare, or particularly hard keeper (a horse that has a hard time gaining and keeping weight on).

During late winter and early spring, keep founder-prone or high-risk horses (like ponies or already fat horses) off lush grass, which can contribute to laminitis as well. 

A very fat, short-legged pony wearing a red halter
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger from Pexels

Loss of Condition 

At the polar opposite on the spectrum of winter health concerns from laminitis and founder is a general loss of condition, be it weight or muscle. While a hearty horse can stand to lose a few pounds over the winter, losing weight over the winter can be a real problem for an already skinny horse or senior animal. 

Preventing Loss of Condition During Winter

The best way to help a horse keep in good condition over the winter is to keep him warm. 

Horses who go into winter in less-than-ideal condition may need to be blanketed, even if they are not clipped. A blanketed horse needs to be checked every day, and he can still lose weight even if blanketed. 

One of the best and easiest methods of keeping winter weight on is hay. Good hay will serve two purposes; the obvious job of getting calories into the horse, but also the work of digesting it increases a horse’s core temperature, helping him stay warm from the inside out.

For many senior horses, hay may not pack enough nutritional and caloric firepower to keep them in good weight through a bad winter. Consider supplementing hay with a grain or pellet mix specially formulated for seniors. 

Another surefire way to make sure your horse doesn’t lose condition is to check him regularly. Even if he’s not being ridden, make a point to bring him in and give him a good grooming regularly. Run your hands all over and check the fat covering his ribs and hindquarters. If you can start to feel the underlying bones, you need to get him some groceries, stat!

Frostbite 

No winter article would be complete without a mention of frostbite! However, this one is last for a reason: horses very rarely get frostbite. A healthy horse is well-equipped to handle cold temperatures, especially if he has a thick mane and tail and has grown a winter coat.

Horses at risk for frostbite include foals and horses subjected to extreme cold temperatures for long periods of time, especially if those temperatures involve rain or snow. In the event that a foal is born outside in winter, she’ll be at increased risk because she’s wet at birth.

The area most commonly affected by frostbite is the tips of the ears, which will fall off about a week after contracting frostbite. Partial loss of a tail may also occur in frostbite cases, usually in foals or young horses. 

Bay-black horse stands outside as snow falls on its back
Photo by Omar Ramadan from Pexels

Preventing Frostbite in Horses

Frostbite will not be much of a concern for most horses, unless you live in a cold northern state or province. Providing adequate shelter is your best defense.

If you have a pregnant mare who is due to foal in winter, ensure she has shelter and keep a close eye on her when she’s due. If the foal is born outside during a cold snap, you may need to get them both into a warm dry barn or shelter ASAP. 

Conclusion

There’s never a “bad” season when it comes to horsemanship, but winter can bring its own unique challenges for keeping your horse healthy and happy. It’s important to recognize the role that our own management choices play in keeping a horse healthy. 

If you follow the tips above and keep on the lookout for the most common horse winter health problems, there’s no reason you and your equine best friend won’t enjoy a safe, healthy winter every year. 

When it comes to winter, don’t forget about your own health, too! Check out 11 Ways to Stay Sane with Your Horse This Winter for useful tips to keep you just as happy and comfortable as your horse. 

Are there any winter-specific health problems in your area that we didn’t cover here? Let us know below!

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