How to help keep a horse in top condition through the winter

Five horses stand in a field

Photo: Melissa Ashley, MSU Extension

Even though you may not ride as much in winter, the care and consideration given to a horse should not decrease through the cold months. Montana winters may not be ideal for riding with cold weather, snow, and wind, but horses that are taken care of through winter will be healthier next spring when the weather warms and it’s time to ride more frequently. Nutrition, water, shelter, and hoof care should all be considered when caring for a horse during winter.

Providing adequate nutrition to meet a horse’s needs is vital in winter. Many adult horses can maintain body condition on a complete forage diet with access to free choice, trace mineralized salt. Adult horses should consume 1.5–2 percent of their body weight in hay, or a 1,000-pound horse will eat 15 to 20 pounds of hay per day. Supplementation with grain is only necessary if horses have difficulty maintaining their body condition. Forages contain a much higher fiber content than grains. Fiber is utilized through bacterial fermentation within the cecum and large intestine. 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 through grain. If there is concern that a horse is not getting adequate nutrition, contact the local veterinarian for assistance in developing a feeding plan.

Access to good quality water is vital for horses in cold weather. Adult horses will normally drink 5-8 gallons of water per day. However, horses eating hay require more water than horses on pasture. As the amount of hay increases for cold weather, the amount of water needed also increases to 9–10 gallons per day. Cold water causes horses to drink less. During winter months, drinking water temperatures should be kept at 45–60°F to maximize consumption. Water heaters are a good way to keep water from being frozen or too cold. If a water heater is not available, check water sources twice daily and remove ice to ensure adequate availability. Colic is a constant concern for horse owners. Impaction colic can be caused by eating hay and not consuming enough water.

A horse drinking from a water tank

Photo: AdobeStock

If there isn’t a barn for the horses, don’t panic. Horses can withstand colder temperatures if they can stay dry and get out of the wind. During adverse weather, horses will often turn their tails to the wind, lower their heads, and stand close together to preserve body heat. Having a lean-to, shed, or windbreak will help a horse survive winter weather.

Whether or not to blanket a horse is another consideration to make on a case-by-case basis. Most horses should not require a horse blanket in the winter if they are allowed to acclimate normally. The long winter hair coat acts as insulation. If the hair coat becomes wet or muddy, this can reduce its insulating value. Keeping the horse dry and free of mud is important for them to stay warm. Horses may need a blanket if they don’t develop a good winter hair coat, are underweight, are in prolonged temperatures below 0°F, have not been acclimated to the cold, have been body clipped, or are very young or very old. If a horse is blanketed, care must be taken to make sure the blanket fits properly and is removed periodically to evaluate the horse. Blankets may slip partially off, have fungus growth underneath, and decrease the chances of noticing weight loss. Checking a horse frequently will help lessen the potential negative consequences of blanketing.

A horse wearing a horse blanket in a snowy corral.

Photo: AdobeStock

Even though a horse may be used less in the winter, do not lessen the frequency of hoof care. Generally, hoof growth will slow during the winter months. However, regularly scheduled visits from a farrier are still important. Horses should have their hooves trimmed every 6–12 weeks. Snow and ice can also become compacted in a horse’s hooves. This can make it difficult for the horse to walk as well as increase the chance of slipping or falling. Checking and picking the hooves often will help reduce the risk of snow and ice compaction.

Horses have lived in cold climates for many years. Good nutrition, along with access to adequate water and shelter, will help a horse through the cold months. Maintaining a good working relationship with the veterinarian and farrier will also help ensure a horse is as healthy as it can be. Even Montana winters can provide a suitable environment for a horse to remain healthy and live outside comfortably.

Juli Snedigar is the MSU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent in Blaine County.