Caring for your horse is a year-round responsibility, no matter what temperatures or weather you may be dealing with. In the northern US, where winter temperatures can dip to 0°F and even lower, winter horse care is especially important. Even in the south where we are, however, you still need to prepare for the winter to keep your horse safe and happy.
In this post, we’ll share what you need to do to winterize your horse and your barn, as well as the best ways to keep your horse happy and healthy during the winter months, no matter where you are.
Winterizing Your Horse
Whether you live in a temperate or colder climate, there’s a lot you can do to prepare your horse for winter. First, you can ease your horse’s transition to colder months by deworming him. Do a fecal analysis to see what specific treatment is recommended, and make sure he has an overall good body condition as you’re nearing winter.
Horses may need additional energy to maintain body warmth in the colder months, so the best time to help your horse put on weight is before winter arrives. In general, the lower your horse’s temperature drops below his lower critical temperature (41°F if he has a summer coat or 18°F if he has a thick winter coat), the more extra energy he will need.
Winterizing Your Barn
Horses may spend additional time in the barn during inclement winter weather, no matter where you are in the country. Before winter arrives, check the condition of your barn. Have it inspected by a professional if you see any movements in the trusses and joints, cracking, or dry rot. Repair any issues to be sure it’s stable and will hold up through the coming winter weather. Also ensure your barn has adequate ventilation.
If you live in an area with snow and ice, get sand to help your horse with traction. It’s usually not a good idea to use salt for this, as your horse may lick it and ingest the sand as well. Furthermore, using a lot of salt to manage snow and ice may cause issues with the horse’s hooves.
Make sure your horse has adequate access to shelter, even if they generally stay in the pasture. Some horses can’t tolerate being in a barn for medical or behavioral reasons, but they still need shelter during poor weather conditions. If your horse is pastured, you should have a run-in shelter, which is a small, three-sided barn-like structure designed to shelter a horse from inclement weather when needed. With access to a shelter of some kind, most horses can tolerate temperatures down to -40°F. However, they are usually most comfortable at temperatures over 18°F, and anything below that can be dangerous for some horses, especially if there is no shelter available.
If you live in an area with snow and ice, make sure you remove snow promptly from paddocks, so horses have easy access to shelter, water, and feed. Be careful not to move the snow to a low area or near drinking sources or septic tanks, where it can pollute drinking water and the surrounding area. Removing snow also helps your paddock dry out faster in the springtime.
Additionally, regularly check the condition of the barn and its ventilation. Monitor your horse’s water intake, making sure they always have access to fresh, unfrozen water. In the summer, horses get a lot of their water intake from grazing in the pasture. So in the winter, it’s especially important that they have access to clean water that’s not from snow and ice. A stock tank de-icer and heated water buckets are the best way to go when the temperatures drop. Finally, keep an eye on your horse’s overall health and weight. It can be easy to miss signs of weight loss under your horse’s thicker winter coat. Don’t overlook pasture quality, if pasture grass is depleted you’ll want a plan in place for hay resources.
Winter Horse Care: Dos and Don’ts
Let’s review some recommendations for caring for your horse during the colder winter months.
- Ensure your horse gets enough water — While it might seem counter-intuitive, your horse requires more water in the winter. Make sure your horse gets plenty of water during the day (at least 1 gallon per hundred pounds body weight). Check that water is always accessible and unfrozen to reduce the risk of colic, dehydration, or intestinal blockage. If temperatures are under 45°F, warm the water to be sure it won’t freeze.
- Exercise your horse — Horses need regular exercise, even in the winter months. If conditions are unsafe for turning out your horse, consider riding or hand-walking.
- Watch your horse for weight changes —Monitor your horse’s weight and body condition scoring to ensure they aren’t losing weight. If they are, adjust the feed to make sure their weight remains stable. For every degree under the horse’s critical temperature (usually around 18°F), the horse needs an additional 1% of energy in their diet. Feed additional hay during extremely cold temperatures (under 18°F).
- Provide fresh air — Dusty barn air can cause respiratory issues in horses and challenge their immune system. If the weather means that your horse needs to stay indoors for a significant amount of time, make sure the barn is well-ventilated. Open windows and doors and use blankets if needed. Consider adding ceiling fans, and make sure to remove manure and wet bedding daily.
- Overdo it when exercising — Just like us, horses can get stiffness and arthritis that is worse in the winter. When exercising your horse, take it slowly at first to warm them up. If you do see signs of stiffness, consider joint supplements. If you are training during colder months, be sure to give your horse cool down time after riding, then dry off any sweat to keep them from getting chilly in the barn.
- Store meds in unheated areas — Many medications can’t handle cold temperatures, and they can become ineffective or even harmful if they freeze. Instead, store them in a climate-controlled area of the barn or in the house.
- Feed block salt — Some horses may not want to lick cold block salt during the winter. If you live in a colder climate, consider feeding loose salt instead.
- Neglect hoof care— It’s critical to ensure your horse has healthy hooves. Checking your horse’s hooves is a daily exercise that is especially important in winter.
Winter Horse Care Matters
The requirements for horse care in the winter may vary based on where you are in the country and what temperatures and weather you encounter. Make sure you prepare your horse and barn well in advance of the colder months. It’s a good idea to start by creating a care plan to make sure you don’t miss anything and ensure your horse stays happy, healthy, and safe during the wintertime.
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