Winter Horse Care
By Dr. Kris Hiney
Horses are more likely to suffer from inadvertent neglect during the winter. Owners may spend less time with their horses due to colder temperatures and less riding activity. It is also easier to miss changes in the horse, which may be hidden by longer hair coats or blankets. Fluctuations in extreme weather conditions can also put an excessive burden on your horse’s health. Put the following items on the winter to-do list: evaluate how your horse is fed, watered and sheltered.
Should your feeding program change?
Winter pasture quality in Oklahoma is very low. All native and warm season grasses are dormant, and the nutritional quality of standing forage is greatly diminished. Protein content of grazing forage may be as low as 3 to 4 percent by mid-winter. Forage as well as concentrate supplementation is typically necessary until March or April—depending on weather and when spring green up occurs. Ideally, sufficient quality hay has already been purchased prior to the arrival of winter. An average 1,100-pound horse will eat around 22 pounds of hay per day.
When the temperature drops, consider extra hay beyond their normal allotment. Horses use additional calories to maintain their body temperature, plus the hay provides heat as it is fermented in their hindgut. There is a lower critical temperature that will vary based on adaptation to cold and on climate factors. Contact OSU Horse Extension if you need assistance calculating lower critical temperature for your horse. On average, for every drop in temperature of 14 degrees Fahrenheit below the lower critical temperature, they will need 20 percent more energy to stay warm.
It is a good practice to regularly evaluate your horse’s body condition score throughout the winter. When checking horses, be sure to put your hands on them! Many horses lose weight in the winter, but it goes undetected due to their fluffy hair coats. If they are blanketed, remove blankets regularly to thoroughly inspect the horse.
There are additional strategies we can take to prepare our horses for winter weather. If horses are housed outside, they should be provided adequate shelter and allowed to grow a hair coat. Horses entering winter with additional body condition score will also be able to stay warm easier. Fat tissue helps insulate horses against the chill. We really don’t want them to start the winter already thin. It is much easier to keep them in a moderate condition than try to gain weight during the winter.
Does my horse need a warm barn?
Stabling may not be necessary as horses do quite well in cold temperatures if they have become accustomed to them. Cold-adapted horses allowed to grow a winter hair coat do well in temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit. However, horses will have trouble keeping warm if the weather suddenly changes and if the horse hasn’t grown the proper hair coat. But all horses, even fuzzy ones, will have trouble if they do not have protection from the wind or rain, especially sleet. This chills a horse rapidly when the fluffy, protective insulation of its hair coat is slicked down to its body.
What is essential, then, is a shelter that can block the wind or allow horses to escape from rain. If horses are sharing shelters, make sure you monitor them and know for sure they all get along. Shifting herd dynamics may leave a horse out in the cold! If you are able to ride, make sure to use a longer warm up process. After riding, be sure your horse has been cooled out properly before turning it back outside. A wet hair coat from sweat can cause the horse to lose heat rapidly.
To blanket or not to blanket?
Many horse owners assume that horses need blankets in the winter. Horses that are acclimated to cold weather, have access to shelter and have a good feed supply don’t need blankets. Blankets are important if your horse is in lower body condition score or is kept with a short hair coat. Blanketing comes with responsibilities. Blanket fit and integrity must be checked. Poorly fitting blankets can either rub on the horse or slip and become tangled. If horses are out in the rain, blankets must be waterproof. Some horses are hard on blankets or may find that blankets on their pasture mates make fun tug toys. Blankets should be removed regularly to inspect the horse and should be removed with shifting weather conditions. With our often-sudden shifts back upward in temperatures, horses may be left sweating in their blankets. With that said, horses do like to be warm and, when given a choice, would prefer blankets when cold.
What is your water source?
Oklahoma can experience some wild temperature swings in the winter, which can be detrimental to a horse’s health. It is critical that horses drink enough water in the winter. Failure to do so can lead to impactions and colic. Horses often decrease their water intake in winter because they do not like cold water. Older horses may also be more susceptible to dehydration in winter as icy water may irritate their teeth. The absence of fresh, green grass can further compound the issue. A tank or bucket heater in the winter is important. Adding salt or water to the diet of the horse may encourage water intake during winter. Try mixing an ounce of salt into the feed source or add water to pelleted feeds or create bran mashes.
Keeping water flowing
If choosing to use tank or bucket heaters, owners must ensure that these devices are not allowing electricity to pass into the water. Horses are extremely sensitive to electricity and can quickly develop a fear of their water source, which may be difficult to overcome. In an ideal world, owners have electric outlets near their horse’s water source that are covered and protected from elements and correctly installed.
What if an electrical source is not readily available? Industrious horse owners can build solar covers for their water tanks. These are insulated boxes that fit over the trough and cover the top. These capture the heat of the sun and prevent heat losses from the top. Commercial units can also be purchased at www.ranchtanks.com.
If electricity is available but not in close proximity, it is important to calculate the voltage loss to determine if an extension cord is an option for you. The longer and/or smaller the extension cord, the greater the voltage loss. Voltage loss in an extension cord should never exceed 5 percent; this could damage your equipment or cause a fire. There are calculators available on the internet that can help you determine voltage loss. Always plug into a GFI (ground fault interrupt) circuit to ensure safety when running an extension cord outside.
Another option is a water aerator that can run off of a 12 V car battery. The water circulation prevents it from freezing, and these units may certainly be an option when only a limited number of days are predicted to be cold.
Remember, when choosing any of these options, it must be safe for horses. Any electric wire must be protected from inquisitive horses and weather.
Winter should not give you the blues when it comes to horse care. Follow these tips to keep horses healthy, and remember spring is right around the corner.