I hate to be the bearer of bad news but winter is just around the corner. Horse care becomes more daunting as winter draws near. Should you blanket your horse, if so at what temperature? It will also be time to think about colic prevention, feeding extra hay, and possibly warm mashes at night! Keeping sand nearby for paddock areas when things get icy is important too.
Horse care is tough enough on a good day, between work and life in general, you still have to find time to muck, groom, feed, and ride your equine friend. In winter you can add in blanketing, throwing extra hay and at times probably shoveling or snow blowing out your paddock areas!
Horses are hearty animals and may not need to be blanketed except for on very cold or windy days. Even when provided a shelter more times than not your horse will stand out in the rain or snow. A horse’s comfort level is between 15 and 65 degrees F. This means that if it is above 15 degrees your horse will not expend any energy to keep warm and below 65 degrees he will not look for shade to cool off. Once it goes below 15 degrees you may want to use a waterproof turnout blanket. It is not necessary to pile on the blankets, or use a heavy turnout blanket, unless your horse is older, or more temperature sensitive.
If you body clip your horse you will be using blankets sooner, and probably a heavier one than if he were not clipped. Horses are made with hair that insulates them from the cold. Look out in your paddock on a cold snowy day and you will see that your horse is covered in a layer of snow. You may think “oh he must be freezing out there.” Not so; his hair keeps the cold from getting to his skin which keeps him from feeling the cold. It is better for your horses if you let them grow a good winter coat before you worry about blanketing.
A good rule of thumb is do not put a blanket on until the temperature goes below 20 degrees for at least two consecutive days. Even when he has icicles hanging from his muzzle he is more than likely still comfortable. Some new horse owners make the mistake of going out and wiping snow from their horse’s back and then drying them with a towel. This will actually make them colder because you are making the wetness get onto the skin. If you remove the snow and rub down your horses with a towel, be sure to put a wool cooler on them until they are dry so they do not get chilled.
Horses warm themselves from the inside out which is why it is a good idea to give them plenty of hay on those colder winter days. They will also move around to get warm, so keeping snow from getting too deep in their paddock will allow them to keep moving when they need to. As I have said in previous columns, horses need to be outside, even when it is cold and snowy. They need to move for warmth, fresh air is good for their lungs and it keeps them mentally happier.
So why is colic more of an issue in winter? There are a few reasons, horses tend to drink less in the winter, whether it is because they are not as thirsty or they don’t like the freezing temperature of the water, they just don’t drink as much. You may consider getting a heating element for your outside water troughs and heated buckets for your stalls. When I had my boarding facility I found not only did the horses drink more when they had the heated buckets, it was a lot less work for me not having to break up ice in the buckets every morning. If you have many paddocks you may not be able to have heating elements in each trough so you may need to break ice throughout the day to keep water accessible for the horses as I did. Hay is another reason the horses won’t get as much liquid in the winter. Hay loses moisture and the water content after a few months of sitting around is far less than fresh cut spring hay.
Electrolytes may be another good solution to get your horse drinking, and or a warm mash for their evening feed. The mash will help warm them from the inside out and get more water into their bellies. Moisture is an important factor in keeping things moving in your horse’s gut. If they do not consume enough water, compaction could become a problem resulting in colic. Keeping a salt block in the horse’s stall is also a good way to make him drink more. You may be tempted to give your horse extra grain in the winter thinking extra calories will keep an extra layer on him. You are better off feeding more hay. Horses don’t need extra calories as much as they need hay to keep their gut working which will keep them warm.
Some of us love to see that first snow cover the ground. A clean sparkling winter wonderland, until that beautiful snow turns to ice! Leading horses out, and watching them slide around in their paddocks is not only scary, it is dangerous! So keep some barrels of sand handy if you can. Kitty litter, used shavings or sawdust will work in a pinch!
If you can, keep riding during the winter. As I said earlier horses tend to move around less in their paddocks during the winter months which can be a precursor to colic. If you are riding you are getting your horse moving, at least for a while each day. Winter trail riding is beautiful, as long as you have good footing, so buck up, dress up, and get out there and ride.
Donna Mori is a certified instructor and natural horsemanship trainer. Email her at email@example.com with
questions or comments.