Horses are naturally designed to survive the winter months. As fewer hours of daylight are available, the horse’s internal clock sounds the alarm to grow more hair. The horse’s coat provides a natural defense against colder weather.
“The long winter hair coat serves as insulation by reducing the loss of body heat and provides the first line of defense against the cold,” said Ann Swinker, Ph.D., Penn State Extension equine specialist. In 2016, Swinker received the American Horse Council’s (AHC) Van Ness Award in recognition of her leadership and service to the horse industry.
The hair loses its insulating quality when the horse becomes wet and/or is covered in mud, she added.
“There is an old misnomer that a horse that is muddy and caked with dirt is better prepared for winter,” Swinker said, “but that’s not a good idea. It’s better to brush off the mud so the hair can fluff up and provide the insulation it is designed to.”
Horses also have a layer of fat beneath the skin. Along with the long hair, the fat provides an extra lining from the cold. In fact, horses prefer cooler temperatures to warm, sultry days.
“Humans are most comfortable when it’s between 60 and 80 degrees. Horses actually prefer cooler weather and are most comfortable between 30 (and) 70 degrees,” Swinker said.
Swinker noted that even though horses are naturally wired to sustain the winter months, it’s important to provide a few essentials to keep the horses healthy.
“The three most important things for horses in the winter are water, feed and shelter,” she said.
Even though horses are naturally designed to acclimate to colder weather, it’s important to provide basic care to keep them healthy and comfortable during the winter months.
Water and feed
During the summer, it’s easy and convenient to regularly visit the barn or pasture. Especially when the horses are used in the fields or woods, you’re paying particular attention to the water and feed they consume. It’s equally important to monitor their water supply throughout the day in the winter months. Mature riding horses need as much as 10 gallons of water per day and draft horses consume at least – if not more – than that amount.
“Without water, a horse can likely only survive for about three days,” Swinker said.
Horses expend water through the saliva needed to digest hay and feed and a well-hydrated horse can better fend off hypothermia. Horses prefer water that is around 40 degrees. Heated water troughs and/or automatic waterers are the least labor intensive method of providing an ample supply of drinking water.
“Check the tank daily to make sure the heater isn’t shorting out and shocking the horse,” Swinker said.
Though the current is not likely high enough voltage to physically harm the horse, an electric shock is going to deter the horse from drinking out of that tub.
If electrical service is not be available for heaters or automatic waterers, it’s even more important to check the water supply throughout the day. Placing two or three 5-gallon pails per horse in the pasture is another alternative. Once the buckets freeze, bring them into a heated garage to defrost or grab a hammer and knock the ice out. Buy enough buckets so that water is available while other (buckets) are thawing. In situations where streams and other natural water sources are the main means for providing water, plan on checking the source throughout the day and breaking any ice.
“It’s best to create a plan for providing plenty of water before winter sets in,” she said.
Forage intake is as important as water consumption. It is the digestion of hay that produces heat to keep the horse warm, which means a horse’s caloric intake will increase. Draft horses typically need between 1.5 and 2.5 percent of their body weight in forage each day. For example, if your draft horse weighs 2,000 pounds, multiply that by 0.15. That equals a minimum of 30 pounds of dry forage a day. But, they may need more than that to maintain their weight in colder months.
“If they seem to be losing weight, you’ll need to increase that to make sure they are consuming enough calories,” she said.
Providing the right amount of feed and hay is important. Overfeeding can be as detrimental as underfeeding. “Overfeeding can cause too much weight gain and lead to laminitis and other health problems,” she said.
Ask your veterinarian for guidance in creating a ration for your horse in the winter months if you’re concerned about his body condition.
Horses need shelter from cold winds, rain and snow for their long coats, and extra fat to keep them warm.
While we might feel chilled at the thought of snow sitting on our back, Swinker said that’s actually a sign the horse is healthy when he’s outside in the winter.
“If you don’t see snow on the back and it has melted off, that means the horse may not be doing well or has a fever,” she said.
Damp weather can lead to rain rot and other skin problems.
“If left unchecked, rain rot can result in hair loss and irrigation,” she said, “it’s important to keep the horse from losing its hair coat, so regularly check for signs of skin conditions.”
Shelter is a must, but it’s not necessary to keep the horses in a closed barn. A three-sided shed or a row of trees can be equally effective in providing enough shelter from the elements. A run-in shed should be built so that it opens away from the normal wind patterns.
“Horses kept outside with a shelter generally have fewer respiratory disease problems than horses kept in poorly ventilated, heated barns,” she said.
Stalls inside are equally acceptable as long as they are well-ventilated and not drafty. “Horses need fresh air. Avoid insulating the barn tightly, but also make sure it’s not overly drafty,” she said.
Don’t neglect routine care
It’s important to continue regular care through the winter months even if the horse isn’t worked as hard as it is the remainder of the year. Even though he may not be working as hard or as frequently, hooves are still growing. “In the winter, the horse is traveling on uneven, frozen ground that can crack and break feet so regular visits from the farrier are important,” Swinker said.
Some horses, either because they are still working or because they have poor hooves, require shoes.
Ask the farrier for shoes that provide traction on ice or snow; snow pads may also be added beneath the hoof to limit the build-up of snow balls in the hoof.
“The most important thing is, do not just turn horses out and forget about them,” Swinker said. “Every day at feeding at least give them a visual examination.”