by Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS
Most horses love cold weather. They are much more stressed in the heat. Some exceptions are our equine friends from hot or tropical climates such as the Middle East, the Australian Outback or Florida. But in general, horses are highly tolerant of winter weather and often thrive in cold conditions with proper “winterization.”
So, how do you winterize your horse, especially in regions that are experiencing fluctuations in temperature patterns such as unexpected warm weather in mid-winter or unpredictable highs and lows in daily temperatures? First, assess your horse’s individual needs and behaviors. Just like humans, some horses are cold-natured and need their blankets and some are warm-natured and hate blankets. Some horses live outside and others do not. Older horses have different needs than younger ones. Horses with weight issues may have specific dietary requirements for healthy maintenance. Some horses are extremely active and others are not. Some are fully or partially clipped.
Horses know when they are cold and will naturally warm up by running around. Healthier horses live outside most of the day, at a minimum of eight to 12 hours or more. They adapt to the cold better if outside more frequently.
All of these scenarios contribute to what approach you should take to prepare your horses for winter and to adapt if the weather or temperature makes unexpected changes to normal weather patterns.
Winterizing your horse usually focuses on blanketing, feeding, and hydration. Let’s discuss best practices for each.
Blanketing – Pros and Cons
Often the question comes up whether to blanket your horse or not. This is not a one size fits all question. Horses are physically designed for cold weather. A horse’s coat or fur does well, even in sub-zero temperatures. The coat insulates the horse from most weather conditions and will “fluff up” just like a cozy down jacket. Snow rarely bothers them and shivering is not a bad thing, it’s done to keep warm. Horses will also naturally seek shelter from wind by going into a shed or standing in low-lying places in the pasture away from the wind or standing around trees.
But cold, wet rain on a 32 to 40-degree day is the hardest weather for horses to stay warm because they get wet to the skin. Horses will often seek out a shed or shelter to get out of driving rain, to shiver, and warm-up. When it’s really cold, 20 degrees or below, horses are generally outside, eating hay and not bothered because their fur is doing its job.
When a horse sweats a lot, as opposed to the rain, the skin becomes wet from the inside out and the fur can’t do its job. Sweating is usually from frequent work or exercise such as daily riding or having your horse participate and train for sporting events, foxhunting, racing, showing, or taking long trail rides. In these situations, horses need to be fully or partially clipped. Once a horse is clipped, you must blanket the horse for winter conditions. For less frequent riding or other activities, consider partially clipping the areas on your horse that sweat more profusely. Instead of shaving the whole horse, look at where your horse is sweating. This will help to lessen the dependence on blanketing. It is important to take time to thoroughly dry your horse’s coat and skin for maximum protection from the cold. You can use heat lamps, hair dryers or wool coolers to dry your horse out.
Older horses may need blankets. Older horses do not generate internal heat very well just like older humans. The best way to manage your older horse, and others for that matter, is to put your hand inside the blanket to feel the temperature and level of moisture. If your horse’s coat or skin feels moist, you may be using too many blankets. If warm and dry, then the blanket is fine. If it feels cold inside, you may need another blanket.
Blankets – Get the Right Fit
It is imperative that your horse’s blanket is properly fitted. Think about it — do you want to wear your heavy winter coat that doesn’t fit all day long? No!
The best way to determine if your horse’s blanket fits after your horse has worn it for long periods of time is to check if the front buckles are still loose enough that you can put your hands beneath them. The shoulders themselves should not have a lot of pressure. This is a well fitting blanket. If you come in the morning and your horse looks strangled and the shoulders are stretched and tight that means your horse was fighting against that all night. Your horse will have stiff shoulders and tight withers. If your horse is older or arthritic they will get stiffer during the winter.
The most common problem is that blankets are too large around the opening for the neck. The neck part of the blanket should be on the narrow part of the neck before the shoulders. Blankets that are too big around the shoulder will slip back gripping the shoulders and the withers. This will cause extreme pressure on the shoulders and also gait restriction.
Blankets are not cheap. But there’s an easy fix if the blanket is too big so there’s no need to replace it. The goal is to free up the shoulder. You can adjust it by sewing a dart in the neck about half way up. This will pull the blanket forward and free the shoulder. Occasionally if you add a dart, it pulls the blanket forward which exposes the rear, but if your horse has a good coat or bushy tail that should be fine.
Gussets on blankets are often in the wrong place and cause shoulder pressure. Gussets need to start higher up on the shoulder. Changing the gusset position with tightening the neck gives more shoulder freedom. A lot of horse companies make the under sheets the same as the blanket size. Make sure your layers fit properly. You can’t cheat on one layer because then the whole layer won’t fit right.
There are many injuries that happen when blankets are not buckled or fitted properly. When you blanket your horse, put the blanket on the shoulder area loosely. Close the front buckles first, then, pull the blanket gently back into position. Do not pull hard. Starting with the front buckles, if the horse takes off, the blanket will not fall off and spook him or turn into a bucking strap. When taking the blanket off, do the reverse. Undo the belly buckles first. Open the chest buckles last. Safety is always important. One spook can send your horse’s blanket sliding backward with belly buckles still done.
Hay Equals Warmth
We can do a lot for warmth with food. Interestingly enough it’s not with feeding more grain. It is with forage. Horses run on forage. The majority of caloric intake for most horses is forage, ranging from 1.5 percent to 3 percent of body weight. Concentrates or grains are needed only to make up the difference in calories between the forage and what the horse needs to maintain weight. Horses may need to take in more calories based on their metabolic rate. Some horses such as thoroughbreds have a higher metabolic rate. Performance horses go for long rides or hard training. Cold weather in general burns more calories. For some individuals, you may need more grain. But hay equals warmth. A horse’s cecum, which is positioned near the small and large intestines, serves as a way to store water and electrolytes. This is important for fiber consumption and replacing electrolytes after heavy sweating. In the cecum, the long stem fiber is broken down into nutritional components. That breaking down process generates heat as a byproduct which is really important in cold weather.
If you observe what your horse eats in the winter it’s usually more hay. Allow them to have more hay if the weather is really cold. Always add more hay first before concentrates because it’s far more effective. If your horse doesn’t have weight issues, then freely feed the hay. If there are weight problems, you can control their hay intake with slow feeders or certain muzzles, of which there are many varieties on the market. But in freezing temperatures, allow the hay because they will burn the calories.
If you have hay with high sugar content, you can soak and rinse it to eliminate some sugar. The research is variable on how much sugar it removes, but it’s a way to salvage your hay. Soaking hay can be difficult because it freezes in the winter and ferments in the summer. So, plan for these issues if you soak your hay or look for a new product called the Hay Soaker https://murdochmethod.com/product/the-hay-soaker/, which will make the job easier.
Pasture Grazing in Winter
Fescue or cool-season grass grows in the spring and fall in Mid-Atlantic and parts of the Midwestern states. Stockpiled tall fescue is the best forage to use for extending the grazing season into late fall and early winter. Fescue is bitter in the summer and sweet after a frost, which can increase sugar levels by 30 percent.
But if you have a killing frost and your other grasses die, fescue becomes your spring grass. It becomes sweet to the horses and their grazing patterns will change. They will eat that portion of the field which they had been avoiding. For horses with weight issues, this can cause laminitis problems in January, the same as in May. If the weather isn’t as cold or there are warmer spells, there are many types of grasses that may have increased sugar content. Muzzles can control intake and allow the nutrients from the grasses. Muzzles do not allow horses to overdo it with hay and allow the horses to exercise and graze with their friends.
Most horses, about 70 percent, are too heavy. About 10 to 20 percent have too little weight. Horses without weight problems can be allowed to graze on fescue. Try to feed hay as much as possible before pouring on grain and concentrates. Feeding too much grain or high carbohydrates diets have a tendency of passing through the stomach quickly and end up in the hindgut which may cause ulcer issues.
To add calories, especially for older horses with teeth problems, add oils and fats. These are safe calories for insulin resistant horses. Hemp seeds and hemp oil are nutrient-rich while flax and chia seeds are also healthy fats but may not add enough calories for a thin horse. Coconut oil is an excellent source but it does freeze hard if you’re in a cold climate. You can add up to a cup a day to a horse’s diet with no problem.
You Can Lead a Horse to Water
Low-grade dehydration is definitely a problem in the winter. With dehydration, you will notice dry manure. Do a skin pinch test on the side of the horse’s neck. In a well-hydrated horse the skin should be elastic and immediately snap back to flat skin. If it stays puckered up, you probably have dehydration. Older horses may have lost their skin elasticity, so you may want to consult with your veterinarian.
Some horses will drink more if the water is warm; however, encourage them to drink cool water. The problem with warm water is when it cools down, the horse won’t drink the cold water. They will want warm water. It’s not necessarily the best thing unless you’re committed to warming the water routinely. You can use warm water as a treat on a cold windy damp day. To encourage drinking, you can add some salts and electrolytes or add flavorings, but make sure they are drinking it. Again, they may get used to the additives and refuse to drink plain water. So keep it to a minimum unless you’re committed to warming water or adding electrolytes or flavorings every time. Another option is soaking foods in water. A wet mash adds a few quarts to food.
If your horse loses weight in the wintertime don’t worry. It’s actually a natural thing. Horses like cold weather. Horses that live in the wild often live in colder regions where there is not much food in the winter. They naturally lose weight. When springtime comes and the spring grasses, your horse can eat the spring grass without worry about weight. It’s far more difficult to manage overweight horses, especially in the spring. Winter weight loss between 25 to 50 pounds is usually fine throughout the winter. Your horse will be ready for spring grass with a much safer and natural metabolism. You do have to watch your older horses’ weight. Use your weight tape. Make sure to use it regularly, especially for horses that wear blankets frequently. If you are your horse’s sole caretaker, sometimes we don’t “see” the weight loss, so it’s best to use a weight tape on a regular basis. This will help you judge the food intake or to add extra calories if needed.
Enjoying Your Horse in Winter
It is important to establish a winterization plan to keep your horse healthy and avoid injuries throughout the cold months. In summary, blanket only if needed. Fit your blankets well and adapt to each individual horse’s needs and the temperature. Use food, particularly hay, as an excellent resource for warmth. Choose hay first before concentrates or other options because it’s far more effective in the winter. Low-grade dehydration is a problem for many horses in the winter. Try to encourage your horse to drink cool water so you are not committed to constantly warming water or adding flavorings or electrolytes. Add water to food for extra hydration.
Adapt to your horse’s individual needs – not just the temperature outside or your perceptions about the horse based on your own needs. Let horses be horses in the winter and enjoy the colder months with them!
Portions of this article are from a live webinar featuring Dr. Joyce Harman, DVM.