• Dr. Bob Coleman, UK Equine Extension Specialist

Managing Horses in Winter

When winter arrives, horses feel it. You can lessen the blow and help your animals thrive in cold weather. Although we have had some cold evenings, now is the best time to get prepared for cold weather…before it hits.

Think about preparing for two scenarios – acute cold and chronic cold. Acute cold is when we experience cold snaps that last for short periods of time. Chronic cold stays for a much longer time. Sometimes acute cold is actually more dangerous for animals because they aren’t used to the cold and owners may not be as prepared as in regions where intense cold is more common and longer lasting.

Be it acute or chronic, horse owners should make sure animals have adequate shelter, fresh water, dry bedding and enough feed.

One way horses keep warm is through digestion; it helps generate heat. The average horse, with a low activity level, should eat between 1.5 and 2 percent of its body weight in feed per day to maintain weight.

As temperatures drop, feed needs rise because horses use up more calories to stay warm. Mature horses can adapt to and handle temperatures as low as five degrees Fahrenheit, but that is the lower critical temperature. When conditions fall below that, horses need to increase heat production or reduce heat loss to maintain core body temperature. One way to do that is to eat more. A drop in temperature to five degrees below zero will require 15 percent more feed to supply needed calories. That means the horse would need to eat two to three more pounds of hay each day.

Make sure you have extra hay available to help your horses get through short-term cold snaps. For longer, more chronic cold exposure, you’ll need to make some other management changes to meet your horses’ calorie needs. Mature horses can maintain on a good quality legume-grass mixed hay, but young, growing horses or broodmares late in gestation may need a concentrate to meet their increased calorie needs.

One of the most time-consuming, but most critical tasks in winter is to make sure horses have access to clean, unfrozen water. Adequate water intake is essential to preventing colic due to impaction.

You need to provide some kind of shelter from wind and precipitation. If you choose to use blankets, make sure they are wind and waterproof. A wet blanket equals a wet horse and that disrupts the coat’s ability to insulate the animal and can quickly lead to cold stress.

Make sure to keep an eye on your horses during cold snaps to make sure they are handling the effects of the cold. That will mean daily checks and quick action if the animals need extra attention. If possible, keep horses out of pastures and paddocks with ponds or open water sources to guard against them falling through ice into the water.

For more information about winter horse management, contact the Woodford County Extension Service.

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