Cold Weather Horse Care: What do horses really need to avoid winter health problems?

What's on your to-do list today? If you need to snap out of that post-holiday daze, just take a look at the national weather map. What will you see? Flooding rivers, a tornado aftermath, cold,...
Red bay horse in heavy sbow fall with snow all over her

What’s on your to-do list today? If you need to snap out of that post-holiday daze, just take a look at the national weather map. What will you see? Flooding rivers, a tornado aftermath, cold, snow. And more cold and more snow.

Many horse owners delayed their usual batten-down-the-hatches winter preparations this year when the thermometer stayed above freezing well through December but the cold and stormy days are bound to arrive sooner or later. This week’s predicted cold snap in the Northeast is an opportunity for horse owners to test our preparations; many of us will be watching our horses tonight for signs of colic, and checking to see how that Christmas blanket really fits. Some will be calling the farrier to get those snow shoes on.

Almost anyplace in the United States is subject to sudden, unpredictable drops in temperature and winter storms. An inch of ice can be far worse than a foot snow, especially if you live somewhere where ice and snow are not expected–or in the county’s budget.

The University of Pennsylvania seems to have anticipated the sudden cold snap in its area, and the fact that all of us are done with holidays and back to reality. So as you remove the wreaths from the stalls in the barn, consider this advice from Liz Arbittier, VMD, staff veterinarian in the Equine Field Service at Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center. She offers six important top considerations for keeping horses healthy and safe during the icy days of winter.

If you think you already know all this, forward the story to someone who might not, or to an educator or horse charity who can spread the word. So many of the neglect and abuse situations we read about arise in the winter months, let’s get the information to people who need to understand winter care for their horses.

What would you add to her list? Check the end of the article for more recommendations and reading from The Jurga Report. Meanwhile, see you at the hardware store, or the feed store, or the tack shop, as we all pick up the necessities to finish our post-holiday winter preparations!

1. Provide adequate shelter:

Horses can do fine living outside through the winter. As long as they are metabolically healthy, receive enough calories, develop a nice winter hair coat, and have appropriate shelter, they can happily ride out a bad winter that has humans groaning. Many horses don’t need to be blanketed, although waterproof/breathable blankets can help protect against driving wind and rain.

Cold temperatures alone don’t generally make horses uncomfortable, but wind and moisture can be difficult for them to tolerate, so they must be able to escape the elements. The best solution is a structural shelter that is big enough to allow all of the horses in that field to safely get out of the weather. One horse with a very dominant personality that won’t allow more submissive types into the shed may be a problem, so owners need to evaluate the personalities in the herd to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

2. Provide adequate calories:

The phrase “bulking up for winter” is no joke! Horses expend significantly more calories keeping warm in the winter than they do any other time of year. High-quality hay should be the staple of any winter diet, especially for horses that are turned out a lot. They should have dry, fresh hay available at all times to keep their caloric losses less than their gains.

Older horses, or horses with significant dental disease that cannot eat hay productively, need to receive calories more frequently in a form that they can use, such as senior feeds.

3. Water not ice:

One of the major causes for colic in the winter is an impaction caused by inadequate water intake. Technology has provided us with excellent solutions to that problem: heated water tubs and non-freezing automatic watering systems. If horses are outside, it is well worth the expense to run electricity to the fields for these devices to ensure a constant source of fresh water. Providing water is a relatively easy way to prevent a common winter colic that could end tragically.

4. Blanket consistently and check frequently:

Blanketing for horses that live outside can be necessary to keep them warm, dry, and happy. However, things can lurk under a blanket that can create a problem if not detected early. Bacterial skin disease, commonly known as rainrot, can occur if a horse with a thick hair coat is repeatedly sweating and then drying under a blanket. Changes in body condition, such as a horse that is losing weight rapidly, can also be missed if the blanket isn’t removed frequently to check. It’s a good idea to take note of any new lumps and bumps that may not be seen with the blanket on.

5. Be smart about clipping:

Horses have a thick winter hair coat designed to protect them. Many people who ride throughout the winter find it helpful to clip their horses to remove heavy hair that slows drying time after a ride. It is fine to turn out appropriately blanketed, clipped horses in the winter weather.

However, owners should be very cautious about clipping horses that live outside through the winter because they will then need to be very diligent about blanketing as temperatures fluctuate. It isn’t fair to a horse to remove his winter woolies and then not blanket him well enough.

Owners who have clipped their horses entirely, including the head and ears, need to be diligent about keeping them inside during excessively cold temperatures, as frostbite can occur.

6. Pay attention to footing:

Horses do just fine in any amount of snow, but ice is another story. Be very cautious about ice on surfaces where the horses walk, either to get to turnout or within their turnout. Fractured bones or “down” horses can be a sad consequence of dicey footing.

Keep large amounts of snow/ice melt handy for when ice develops. (But don’t forget to watch out for your cats and dogs that might not tolerate rock salt on their pads!)

Horses that are shod and live in snowy regions could benefit from a farrier applying a special pad to prevent the balling-up of snow inside their shoes. These snowballs can create 4-inch stilettos that are very unstable and can lead to injury.

With ice and snow, make sure that your farrier and veterinarian have good access to your horses: plowing/salting driveways is very important to providing care, especially in an emergency situation.

About Penn Vet

Penn Vet serves a diverse population of animals at its two campuses, which include extensive diagnostic and research laboratories. New Bolton Center, Penn Vet’s large-animal hospital on nearly 700 acres in rural Kennett Square, cares for horses and livestock/farm animals. The hospital handles more than 4,000 patient visits a year, while the Field Service treats nearly 37,000 patients at local farms. For more information, visit

To learn more:

Don’t forget the winter of 2015! (How could you?) Revisit “Code White” on The Jurga Report from February 2015.

Check what you still need to do to prepare on The Jurga Report’s in-depth 2015-2016 winter prep survival guide





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