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Ask the Vet, Sallie S. Hyman VMD, DACVIM: Cold Weather Care
Equine Cold Weather Care
Dropping temperatures bring many challenges when it comes to caring for our horses during the winter. Being prepared and having a plan can help to keep our horses healthy and fit during these cold months.
Water is one of the most important elements needed to help keep a horse healthy when temperatures drop. We typically think of horses needing water when they are hot and need to be cooled off, but water is equally as important when they are cold. Water is essential for regulating body temperature, whether the outside temperature is hot or cold.
Horses will tend to decrease water consumption as the temperature of the air, and their water, drops. Keep water buckets and troughs free from ice. Heaters are the most convenient way to accomplish this, but if you do not have power near your water troughs, you can add warm water to buckets and troughs to keep the water from freezing too quickly. Several studies have shown that warming water to at least 60° F will increase water consumption to 40-100%. Water should be maintained between 45 and 65 degrees F and any ice crystals should be removed. Horses normally drink between between 8 to 12 gallons of water a day, so make sure that a least this amount of ice free water is available.
Hay is also essential to good health during cold weather, much more so than grain. Hay digestion acts as an “internal furnace” for the horse. Fiber is utilized through bacterial fermentation within the cecum and large intestine. Much more heat is produced in bacterial fiber fermentation than in digestion and absorption of nutrients within the small intestine (cereal grains). This results in a greater amount of heat being produced through the utilization of forages than utilization of grain. Feed as much hay as your horse will eat without wasting any.
Grain may be necessary to help keep weight on hard keepers.
Dr. Kathy Anderson of the Nebraska Cooperative Extension has written on the “critical temperature”, that temperature at which heat production must increase and its effects on energy requirements:
The critical temperature can be used to estimate changes in a horse’s nutritional requirement relative to falling temperatures, cold winds, and wet hair coats. Estimates for the lower critical temperature for horses are between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit depending on hair coat, body condition, wetness and windchill. The critical temperature for cattle ranges from 18 degrees F for dry weather and heavy hair coats to 59 degrees F for animals with summer or wet hair coats. Estimates for the lower critical temperatures for horses are given in Table I.
Lower Critical Temperature (F)
Wet or short
For each decrease in coldness of one degree Fahrenheit below the critical temperature, there is an increase indigestible energy requirements of one percent for body temperature maintenance (Table II). The best estimate of coldness is windchill temperature, as this combines the effect of temperature and wind. For example a horse with a heavy winter hair coat has an estimated critical temperature of 30 degrees F (Table I). Thus, if the wind chill is 20 degrees F, the horse would have an increased energy requirement of 10 percent or 2 Mcal/day and should consume approximately two additional lb of hay per day (Table II). This 1,000 lb horse should already be consuming approximately 15 lb of hay per day, and now should consume 17 lb of hay to avoid any loss of body condition. Wet weather combined with wind greatly increases a horse’s energy needs (Table III). A horse in 32 degree F weather, without shelter and subjected to rain and 10 to 15 mph wind, would need to consume an additional 10 to 14 Mcal per day or a total of at least 25 lb of feed. Some horses would not be able to consume this volume of feed in hay alone.
Difference in F Below Critical Temperature
Digestible Energy Increase (Mcals/days)
Feed Intake Increase1(lb/day)
¹Assuming an energy density of 1.0 Mcal/lb, which is typical of many hays.
Table III. Effect of Wind and Rain on Digest Energy Requirement for Horses at Maintenance
32 degrees F
10 – 15 mph wind
32 degrees F
32 degrees F
rain and wind
*May not be able to consume enough hay to meet requirements.
Making sure your horse goes into the winter in good condition will help to minimize the increased energy demands of the cold weather. Some owners will even precondition their horses for the cold by increasing calories before the demand increases and allowing their horses to gain a little weight before winter.
Long Hair vs. Blankets
Horses grow a long thick coat as the daylight decreases. A natural haircoat is the best defense against cold weather. Warm air is trapped next to the skin when the hairs stand up in response to cold weather. This acts as a great insulator. Blankets are usually only necessary for clipped horses, geriatric horses, and for others when the wind is especially strong or there is rain.
Inside or Outside
Although many horse owners immediately feel the need to put their horse in a stall when the temperature drops, most horses do not need to be stabled. Horses out at pasture do very well in colder temperatures as long as they have some sort of shelter or windbreak available to them. This will allow them to get out of the wind and rain/snow. If you do stable your horse, make sure that there is adequate ventilation. A tightly closed up barn will quickly become too warm for most horses and airborne dust, mold, and endotoxins can hurt your horse’s respiratory system.
Don’t neglect routine hoof care. Many owners choose to pull shoes when horses aren’t working as much during the winter. Hooves grow more slowly during the colder months, but do need routine trimming to keep them healthy.
It is not necessary to forgo riding in winter, but there are some tips you should know. Warm up slowly to loosen muscles and any arthritic joints. A quarter sheet can help to keep your horse a little warmer, especially on windy days. A slow warm up will also help your horse’s heart and lungs adjust to the cold. Extremely cold air can cause lung damage, so take care when the mercury dips really low. Make sure that you prepare your horses feet for riding on snow and ice. Snow pads and Borium on shoes can help to prevent slips and falls. Riding on very hard frozen surfaces can cause sole bruises or injure sensitive lamina. Try to find softer ground to protect your horse’s feet.
Winter doesn’t have to stop us from enjoying our horses. Knowing how to manage the challenges the cold can present will help keep you and your horse safe and healthy throughout the winter season.
Information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for evaluation by an equine professional. In particular, all horse owners should seek advice and treatment from a licensed veterinarian for their horses' medical care.
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