1- WATER. This is probably the single most important need during winter weather. Though horses need less water in cold weather, they also drink less. In fact, they often do not drink enough to stay hydrated. Decreased water consumption has been directly linked to fecal impaction colic, which can lead to death. An adult full-size horse needs at least 6 liters of fresh water daily to maintain good condition.
To keep your horse at peak condition during winter, see that the water source is warmed. This is fairly easy for horses kept in the barn. Keep the ice broken in the water buckets and always top up with hot water from the tap. If your horses winter out-of-doors, keeping warm water available can be a real challenge.
Automatic waterers are an obvious solution, but finding the right model for the job--and at the right price--takes some research. Some waterers are more suitable to cattle than horses, as our equine friends tend to "play" with objects and could dislodge or damage the apparatus. Be sure to buy a reputable brand that is recommended for equine use. Some heating systems install under a stock tank, heating from the outside. Always check an automatic waterer on a daily basis; they can malfunction.
If an automatic watering system is not in your budget, carry out buckets of hot water twice a day. Before offering it to the horses, make sure it is a temperature that you would drink. If it's too hot, add a little cold water until it is the right temperature.
2- SHELTER. In regions were winter stays very cold for months on end, shelter is very important. Horses adapt to weather conditions quite well, but they need an escape from brutal winds and heavy moisture. A run-in shed with three sides and a slanted roof is adequate for pastured horses. The open side of the shed must face away from the prevailing wind, and the shed should be situated in a spot with adequate drainage. If you keep your horses indoors, stalls will need to be maintained daily and refreshed with clean, dry bedding. Even on the coldest days, crack the barn door slightly to provide ventilation and keep fresh air moving through the space.
3- FEED. Winter weather puts a tremendous demand on a horse's body to continue producing heat. For each decrease of 1-degree Fahrenheit below critical temperature (from 60 to 30 degrees, depending on hair coat), the horse's digestible energy requirements increase by 1% to maintain body temperature.1 Ask your veterinarian to guide you on how much more to feed your outdoor horses, especially if cold spells in your area generally last extended periods of time. Remember, you cannot suddenly adjust the amount of grain ration without increasing the risk of colic and laminitis (founder). Unfortunately, most horses experience loss of body condition during extended periods of freezing temperatures, no matter how well they are fed. Start the early winter season by getting your horse into good condition.
4- BLANKETS. Horses that live outdoors should be allowed to grow a long winter hair coat. This furry covering is more insulating than a blanket. A heavy hair coat traps the body heat against the skin. Additionally, leave the hair within the ears and around the fetlocks; this is additional protection. However, a thick hair coat can camouflage body condition, so be sure to assess the horse's condition frequently by feeling the area over the ribs. To tell if a horse is cold, feel its ears--if they are cold, the horse is cold.
If the horse has been clipped, or recently moved from a warm climate to a colder one, a blanket should be used. If the horse doesn't usually wear a blanket, check frequently to see that the animal is not sweating under the blanket. Remove the blanket immediately if the horse's body is damp, then dry the haircoat.
Choose the appropriate blanket depending on the amount of protection needed, and make sure it fits properly. Too tight, and the blanket will chafe the skin; too large, the blanket can slip down under the belly, with the potential for the legs to get tangled. Make it a practice not to share blankets between horses. Ringworm, fungus, and other infections can be easily spread on blankets and sheets.
5- FEET. No Foot, No Horse. Absolutely true, and more so in winter. If your riding horse is shod, pull the shoes unless you are riding indoors on a regular basis; if you ride outdoors, have your farrier add shoes with borium or steel studs to grip the ice. Horses kept outdoors should be unshod. Ice can pack into the hoof area surrounded by the shoe, and this increases the possibility of slipping on snow or ice. Keep your hoof maintenance program running through the winter. Trim every six to eight weeks to prevent cracking and breakage of brittle hoof walls impacting frozen ground. Don't trim too close, or your horse can suffer from bruised feet, which can lead to laminitis.
Our four-legged friends can't tell us when they're cold or uncomfortable, so make sure you check on these critical points of winter horse care. Your horse will love you for it.
1. Equine Facts. University of Maine Extension. http://www.umext.maine.edu