Prepping Your Horse for Wintertime

By Stephanie Meyer, DVM, CVA, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital

The cold temperatures of winter present challenges for horses and their owners. Here are some preparation tips to help keep your horse healthy and safe when temperatures drop and days become shorter.

Nutrition: Horses burn calories to stay warm; therefore, adequate caloric intake is essential to keep your horse healthy and maintain weight through the winter. Learning to assess your horse’s body condition score is an important tool for successful management. Generally, we like horses to maintain a body condition score of 5 to 6 (out of 9), which means the ribs can be felt but not seen, and the topline is relatively flat, not prominent and bony. 

Now is the time to assess your hay and feed supplies. Natural grazing is difficult during the winter months due to sparse pastures; therefore, you need to supply your horse with enough forage or hay to keep his body condition. As a general rule, a horse should consume 1.5% to 2.5% of his body weight in forage or hay each day. This equates to 15 to 25 pounds of forage (fiber from hay and/or a complete feed) per day for a 1,000-pound horse. The digestion of hay also serves as a good source of internal heat generation. If you are not feeding grain, don’t forget to add a good ration balancer to provide the necessary vitamins, minerals and protein that may not be provided in hay.

If you have an older horse and his teeth are wearing down, calories need to be supplied from a high-quality senior complete feed. These products have enough fiber to safely replace the hay component of the diet and are fortified with the necessary vitamins, minerals and protein for the older horse.   

Clean, fresh water is also a necessity. Horses still need an abundance of fresh water in the winter. It is important to ensure your horse’s water does not freeze. This can be accomplished by using heating units (designed for this purpose) or by checking your horse’s water source several times a day to make sure the water is not frozen. An established plan to keep your horse’s water from freezing will also reduce the risk of impaction colic.

Dental Care: If your horse has not had a recent dental exam, it’s a good time to schedule one. If your horse’s teeth aren’t in optimal shape, consuming large amounts of hay may make it difficult for him to adequately grind hay for easy digestion and absorption of nutrients. 

Blankets: If you blanket your horse in the winter, ensure blankets are clean and make any needed repairs. Many horses do not need to be blanketed in the winter if they have an adequate hair coat, are in good body condition, and have access to shelter. However, horses that are body clipped through the winter months need the additional warmth and protection of blankets.

For more specific advice on managing your horse this winter, please contact your veterinarian or call Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital, Snohomish, at 360.568.3111 to schedule a consultation with one of our equine practitioners.

Photo: Vinnie, January entry, 2014 Pilchuck calendar contest

Article added 9.24.14