Cold Weather Horse Management Tips

As the calendar flips from December to January, the coldest months of winter are typically just settling in. To help owners weather the winter, an equine expert from the University of Kentucky (UK) College of Agriculture, Food and Environment is sharing some tips for managing horses during extremely cold weather.

While the ideal time for cold weather preparation is in the fall, there are some steps you can take now to help keep your horses healthy. Bob Coleman, PhD, PAS, extension equine specialist in UK’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences, said horse owners should prepare for both acute and chronic cold; acute cold occurs during the cold snaps that last for short time periods, while chronic cold takes hold and stays in a region for a much longer duration. In some cases acute situations can be more dangerous than chronic cold, he said, because animals aren’t as used to the cold and owners might less prepared to combat the temperatures.

Regardless of the type of cold, owners should ensure horses have adequate shelter, water, dry bedding, and feed, he said.

Coleman said digestion is one way horses generate heat when it is cold. The average horse, with a lower activity level, should eat between 1.5 and 2 percent of his body weight in feed per day to maintain weight.

Feed requirements increase as temperatures drop and horses use more calories to keep warm. Mature horses, when adapted, can handle a temperature of 5 degrees F—called the lower critical temperature, he said—before needing to increase heat production or reduce heat loss to maintain core body temperature. One way to do this is for the horse to eat more. In temperatures around minus 5 degrees F horses will require an additional 15 percent more forage to provide the needed calories, meaning they’ll need to eat 2 to 3 more pounds of hay each day.

“As a horse owner, making sure there is some extra hay available will help your horses get through the short-term cold snaps,” Coleman said. “Long or more chronic exposure to cold will need some other management changes to meet the horse’s calorie needs. For the short-term, add more forage.”

But, he added, if forage supplies are limited, more hay alone isn’t doing the trick, or you have a horse with special dietary needs, you might need to add a concentrate feed to the horse’s diet.

While mature horses at maintenance, can often get their required nutrients from good-quality legume-grass mixed hay, young growing horses and broodmares in late gestation generally require a concentrate to meet their increased calorie needs. Senior horses, especially those with poor dentition, might also require a concentrate. Make all dietary changes and add concentrates gradually to prevent digestive upset.

Coleman said it’s also critically important for horses to have access to clean, unfrozen water during the winter. While this can be one of the most difficult and time-consuming aspects of winter horse management, it is also one of the most important. Appropriate water intake helps reduce impaction colic risk and keep the horse’s body functioning properly.

Horses also need shelter to provide protection from wind and precipitation.

If you choose to blanket horses, Coleman said to make sure those blankets are both wind- and waterproof. A wet blanket equals a wet horse, and a wet haircoat has reduced insulating abilities. A cold and wet horse can quickly develop cold stress.

Take extra time to observe horses during cold snaps to ensure they’re handling the weather well and provide extra care to those that are feeling the cold’s effects.

One last bit of advice: Coleman strongly recommends keeping horses out of pastures or paddocks with ponds or other open water sources. Every winter there are cases of horses falling through ice and into a pond, oftentimes perishing before they can be rescued.

Holly Wiemers, MA, is the communications and managing director for UK Ag Equine Programs.

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More information on Gluck Equine Research Center and UK Ag Equine Programs.