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  • Writer's pictureSarah L Rhoades, DVM

5 Strategies for Keeping You Horse Warm & Healthy During the Winter Months

Number 5: Consider Blanketing Compromised Groups

Most normal, healthy, adult horses do not need blankets - and I put this point at the bottom of the list for this point - it is probably actually the least important thing you do. However, a study released last November out of the University of Wisconsin, suggests blanketed horses eat 8% less hay when compared to their non-blanketed counterparts. (You can check out that abstract right here for my fellow science nerds. For an easier here is TheHorse article about the paper results.)

When temperatures drop, horses seek out forage in an effort to stay warm - I'll get into more detail about that below - so for a group of horses to voluntarily reduce their hay consumption over the course of the winter by a statistically significant margin, would suggest that group had an easier time thermoregulating during cold periods.

Consider blanketing the thin (BCS <4), young, and old members of the herd to help conserve energy usage during the colder months.
Compromised horses may need a little help.

It is also important to note that these two groups were normal, adult, healthy horses - that there were no differences in body condition or weight gain/loss... and that the reverse argument can also be made: that healthy horses compensated for the cold by consuming more hay.

And that leads me to the point why it made the list: If your horse is in a compromised group - the young (like foals and weanlings), old (senior horses, approximately greater than 20, horses with age related metabolic changes like PPID/Equine Cushing's, orthopedic disease, dentition impairment, etc.), or on the thinner margin of the Body Condition Score Chart (4 or less) - these horses really don't have a lot of extra calories to spend trying to maintain internal body temperature, and a blanket may be helpful in expending dietary resources on maintaining body weight and at least a little bit less on staying warm.

Number 4: Physically Monitor Your Horse's Weight and Body Condition Once a Month

That thick, hair winter coat keeps your horse warm over the winter. It also hides any changes his body is undergoing during those months. Monthly evaluation of your horse can help you make dietary and husbandry changes that will allow your horse to come out of winter sleek and healthy - but it is incredibly important to note: it takes more than just laying eyes on them!!!

Hair hides potentially changes from your view. Physically and objectively, monitor for changes in your horse's weight and body condition once a month during the winter months.
During the winter, it's not enough just to 'look.'

Physically put your hands on you horse and give him a Body Condition Score every month during the winter. You should be able to feel a layer of fat between and on top of his rib cage, while still easily feeling each individual rib underneath without having to push down hard. (This Video from Purina actually demonstrates and explains how to body condition score your horse really well.)

Another simple thing you can do is use a weight tape once a month. Weight tapes are cheap and easily obtained and should be a staple part of any horse owner's tack back. This allows you to make an objective assessment of whether your horse is gaining or losing weight on a month to month basis as the winter sojourns on. And again, this is important, because it alerts you that your horse could be having difficulty maintain his internal state, and make changes to his upkeep that keep him healthy.

Number 3: Give Continuous Access to Shelter from the Elements

Our horses stay huddled up on the South-East side of this old milking parlor which makes a magnificent wind break from a majority wind that hits our pasture.
What are doing? It's COLD Out there!

When it sleets, rains, and snows, and this gets on your horse's winter coat, it does a very similar thing to when your outer layer gets damp and wet - simply put it doesn't work very well, it fails to insulate! So, it's really important to make sure your horse has a way to get out of the elements when he needs to warm up.

Equally as important is a shelter that protects against the wind.

I would argue, this point gets overlooked in manmade structures far too frequently. Sure, there's a roof - but how helpful is that if the wind cuts straight through? It's not

super helpful to have an enclosed run in shed, if it's open to a nasty northern wind.

A group of calves seeking shelter from the elements in a thickly wood spot of the pasture.
Do you see the Calves?

That said, a good, thick, grove of woods or trees can actually make a good shelter - it does count.

Another really important point that gets overlooked is spacing - dominant herd members will dominate resources and push more submissive herd members off. So if there is not enough room, or the entrance is easily guarded, the lower men on the totem pole may not get access to that resource. Adequate space, or multiple, nearby, 'shelters' may be required so that all herd members have a chance to utilize this resource.

Number 2: Provide Continuous Access to Forage

Horses are what we call hind gut fermenters. What this means is tough, fibrous, dietary meals enter the large intestine, where bacteria break them down into components their body can utilize in a process called fermentation.

Fermentation produces a significant amount of heat. Yes, your horse literally has an internal furnace fueled by hay to keep him warm.

Make sure your horse has continuous access to long stem forage when temperatures hit their extreme lows!
The frosted Mini Wheat harvest is ready!

While, grain provides more concentration of calories, and may be an important considering for compromised individuals during the highly metabolically taxing winter months, it does not undergo this fermentation process. A majority of healthy, adult horses (BCS scores of 5 or more) likely need very little additional concentrate supplementation if fed appropriate amounts of forage during these colder periods. This is probably the most important thing you can do to keep your horse warm during these particularly extreme cold snaps.

It does come with a word of caution - certain groups prone to Insulin Dysregulation from Metabolic Syndrome and PPID/Equine Cushing's Disease may need care here: some of these horses may be especially sensitive to the sugars and starches found in many grass hays. This is one area you really need to discuss with the veterinarian familiar with your case for specific recommendations. More or less, just be aware there are often times some creative solutions around this to balance both of these needs without causing additional problems.

What is the 'Lower Critical Threshold' in my horse and why won't you just make it simple and tell me what temperature to throw more hay out? Well, unfortunately the answer is 'highly variable' and dependent on several factors. Check this quick read out for a better explanation on that.

Number 1: Water, WATER, WATER!!!!! Provide it and Check on it Twice Daily!

Your horse does not stop needing water just because its cold. Actually, his need goes up when temperatures drop to their extreme lows.

Natural sources of water, such as creeks and ponds, are not appropriate as main sources when temperatures get down into the 20s. Sources such as ponds, should actually be fenced off from livestock - thirsty animals seeking a drink can, and do, wander out on the ice and can become trapped in a very cruel and tragic death trap. Go onto Missouri Large Animal Emergency Response Service (MERS) Facebook page and note those ice water rescues that seem to occur every year as point and case - go far enough back and you'll find my horse on there - trust me it happens, and not all of them end well.

More than that, horses do not drink as much cold water. They prefer and drink more cold water when temperatures are hot, and warm water when temperatures are cold. Just like us. So having a source of ice free water is pretty important - especially when combined with the point that your horse is also eating more dry matter and needs more fluid to help keep that material passing through the gastrointestinal tract normally. If you have to, offering warm water to your horse twice daily, with continuous access to a fresh water source, is most certainly an option in some circumstances.

Physically check your horse's water source twice daily. Make sure the heater is functioning properly. And try to ensure your horse has continuous access to fresh, ice free water.
Physically check twice daily!

Provide water fresh, ice free water, and physically check it twice daily. Stock tank heaters are fantastic, I use them! They also break and malfunction.

I have treated impaction colics resulting from horses not drinking because the heater was shorted and gave said thirsty animals quite the shock every time they attempted to drink. Unfortunately, this isn't actually an uncommon scenario - as in, enough they base NAVLE exam questions off these scenarios when you're working on getting that degree and license.

It would also be a problem to check your tanks every 3 or 4 days to find them frozen - so how long have the livestock been without water? A more important question - Worst case, what is the longest you would want them to be without water should something happen? My answer would be no more than 12 hours - so you should physically check your tank twice daily.

I hope you found this advice helpful! Hope you all are staying warm and weathered this nasty weather just fine! Thanks for the read!

Sarah L Rhoades, DVM


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