Winter Horse Care

Winter horse care doesn’t have to be extremely complicated. In fact, if your climate varies very little between the four seasons, you might not have to make any changes to your horse’s nutritional routine. If, on the other hand, you are so lucky as to have temperatures below zero and snow measured in feet instead of inches, cold weather might dictate a few more changes to your routine.

Challenge One: The Calorie Balance

Changing seasons can dictate changing calorie needs. The exact change in calorie needs for your horse will depend a lot on your climate and his lifestyle. Some things to consider:

Is his workload changing?

If you’re like me and find yourself riding less in the winter, your horse’s calorie output due to his workload is likely decreasing. Also take a look at the intensity of his workload. If you have an indoor arena accessible, chances are his workload and its intensity is probably about the same. However, if you don’t have indoor facilities available to you, ground conditions such as ice or snow may dictate that workouts are more moderately paced and less intense.

Also take into consideration how much pastured horses are moving around. In the summer, horses are typically moving across entire pastures while grazing. Howeverm in the winter, hay might typically only be available in one area, decreasing the need for horses to move around as much.

What is the climate like?

Horses in cold and windy climates are going to require more calories to maintain thier body temperature. Likewise, if it is often damp, calorie needs will also increase (and if you’re part of the lucky few who have cold, wet, AND windy days most of the winter months, your horse’s calorie needs probably take a signifcant jump just to maintain body temperature).

On the other hand, if you winter weather varies very little from your weather during other seasons, your horse likely won’t have a noticeable need for increased calories during the winter months.

What kind of shelter is available?

Horses that are housed completely inside during winter months will have need less of a calorie increase than horses housed outside in either full or part.

Taking these three areas into consideration will help you determine if your horse is likely to need more, less, or about the same calories in your winter horse care routine as he does during the warmer months. Now that you know whether you’ll likely be increasing or decreasing calories, lets take a look at the next challenge.

Challenge Two: Feed Change

For horses that are turned out most or all of the day during winter, free choice forage is usually the best option for helping them maintain their body temperature. If you remember back to seventh grade science class, one of the byproducts of work is heat. When the microbes in your horses’ digestive tract work harder and longer to break down more long-stem forage, they create more heat. In this case, this is a good thing, as that heat is used to help your horse regulate his body temperature.

Obviously there are some situations where either health problems or housing situations prevent free choice forage, and those cases need to be considered on a case by case basis, attempting to get as much long stem forage as feasible provided to the horse.

Another feed change that might need to be considered is reduction or removal of grain based feeds, if your horse has a significantly higher workload in the warmer months than he does in the winter months.

Challenge Three: Ice, Ice, Everywhere

Ice is found lots of places in winter, and unfortunately your horse’s water source is probably one of them. Water intake for horses in the winter is just as critical in the summer, sometimes moreso. Keeping the water ice free and getting finicky horses to drink enough when the water is very cold is sometimes one of the greatest challenges of winter horse care.

For some horse owners, a bucket or tank heater may be just the option for keeping water ice free. These are especially nice for finicky horses that don’t like cold water as they keep the water a bit warmer than it would typically otherwise be in most cold climates.

Unfortunately, for various reasons, sometimes a bucket or tank heater might not be feasible. There might not be a power source nearby, or an inquisitive horse may not leave the tank heater alone. In these instances, there are a few other options to try, to maximize the time your horse’s water source is ice free:

Go bigger.

Larger bodies of water take longer to freeze, and this is true of containers of water as well. If your horse typically has a 5 gallon bucket or similar sized water source, try upgrading him to something larger in the winter. For stalled horses, muck buckets often work, if the horse won’t tip it over or put his feet in it.

Location, location, location.

Try moving the water tank somewhere where it will have maximum exposure to sun and minimum exposure to wind. This is typically on the south side of something, be it a building, hill, or something else.

Cover it up.

Covering up most of the water tank, leaving just enough room for the horses to drink will help slow down ice formation. Whatever you use to cover up the majority of the tank, be sure it is something that you can securely attach so your horse doesn’t get hurt on it.

Bury it.

Digging a hole and partially burying the tank is said to help keep water from freezing as well, by using the ground’s natual heat. I’ve never personally tried this one, but have heard a lot of people swear by it.

Have a ball.

Putting something that will float in the water, such as a basketball or football is said to help keep the water from freezing so quickly. This is what we used before we had tank heaters, and it did seem to help at least some, though the water was typically re-frozen by the time we got home at the end of the day. For us, footballs seemed to stay in the water the most (I don’t think the horses could get their teeth on them as easily as they could on the basketballs) and keep the water from freezing the longest.


Winter horse care doesn’t have to be extremely difficult, and I hope some of the above tips have helped to streamline your winter horse care processes to make things a little bit easier for yourself.


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