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Winter care for your horses

Anne Rodiek Published on 31 January 2011
Horses in the snow

Winter’s short days and long, cold nights often bring less outdoor activity and more time to rest, physically and mentally. Both man and beast benefit from rest and recuperation.

“R and R” for ranch horses often means long periods of time to just “be a horse” and the opportunity to revert from being man’s willing co-worker to the animal evolution created.

The “evolved horse,” compared to the “co-worker horse” can have some notable differences:

  1. likely heavier in body weight
  2. barefoot with larger, rounder hooves
  3. long-haired and dirty (and liking it)
  4. eating most of the day
  5. spending time in idle companionship with other horses

Why is it good for the horse to have time to be a horse? Well, like us, horses need a vacation. For horses, nothing is so relaxing as to do nothing except eat and hang out with friends. For hard-working horses, a chance to gain some weight is also good, so they have some reserve in case of illness but also to fuel hard work when work starts again.

Shod horses can get contracted feet after long periods of wearing shoes, especially small shoes. Going barefoot allows the hooves to expand and naturally re-balance, provided the horse can be comfortable barefoot.

Some horses can have their shoes taken off and walk right off, but others are thin-walled, thin-soled, laminitic or otherwise sensitive and would become very lame if left barefoot, especially on uneven or frozen ground. These horses may not be able to go barefoot.

Idle horses usually need only good-quality forage to maintain and even gain weight. Both grass and legume hays are suitable. On average, a horse will eat about 2 percent of its body weight daily in air-dry hay.

For an average 15-hand, 1,100-pound horse, that’s about 22 pounds of hay per day. For many horses, 2 percent of body weight daily as hay will promote weight gain, especially if fed alfalfa hay.

However, the calories required to keep horses warm during long, cold nights is considerable, and horses kept on the same rations during cold weather as during warmer weather may likely lose weight while doing nothing except maintaining adequate body temperature.

Added fat helps insulate the horse from heat loss, another bonus to a little weight gain. Horses that are predisposed to laminitis, however, should not be allowed to gain large amounts of weight and should not be fed very high-carbohydrate diets.

For some horses, even liberal amounts of cereal hay that contain grain are too much carbohydrate.These horses will do better on rations of alfalfa and warm-season (bermudagrass or teff) grass hay.

Not a lot is known, scientifically, about when horses are too cold. With adequate body weight and sufficient good-quality forage, horses seem to be able to endure very cold weather. They suffer, however, when the weather is wet and/or windy and cold.

An open shelter or even a windbreak is often utilized by horses, especially if it is large enough for several horses to stand in at one time and open enough so that horses can see well around them and not feel fearful that they are isolated or cannot see potential danger.

Winter health care is usually minimal. Horses should be wormed routinely and vaccinated annually or as recommended according to regional needs. The greatest danger in winter is probably lack of observation by humans.

A deep cut can be hidden by a long hair coat. A hoof abscess or other injury may not be easily seen when horses are fed in the dark both morning and night.

At least a once-a-week, hands-on, thorough observation of each horse is a good practice to make sure nothing is missed regarding a horse’s overall health.

Perhaps the most important winter care consideration is free access to water. Many horses get colic when the weather turns cold because water freezes. Horses need, during cold weather, about five gallons of water per day.

Warm water is drunk more readily than ice-cold water. Inadequate water can cause a whole host of metabolic imbalances in the horse. For most horses, winter is a great time of year.

With a little observation and assurance that basic needs are met, we can spend our winter indoors and not worry about our co-workers outdoors.  end_mark

Dr. Anne Rodiek teaches in the equine program, quarter horse unit of Cal-State University – Fresno.


With adequate body weight and sufficient good-quality forage, horses can endure very cold weather. Photo courtesy

Anne Rodiek

Anne Rodiek
Animal Science, California State University – Fresno