Winter Horse Care

We are very lucky here in the Northwest to have relatively mild winters. However, there are some special considerations for caring for our equine friends as the days become shorter and the nights get cooler.

  • Decreased turn-out and more time spent indoors can lead to an increase in several conditions during the winter. Dust, molds and ammonia from urine can build up in the air and predispose our horses to conditions such as inflammatory airway disease (commonly known as heaves). It is important to maintain good ventilation and airflow in the barn, even when temperatures drop.
  • With increased stall time also comes more crowding of horses and therefore an increased risk of exposure to common infectious diseases, such as the flu or rhinoviruses. If your horse is kept at a large boarding facility or you plan to travel in the winter, it is a good idea to booster these vaccines, even if your horse was vaccinated in the spring.
  • While it is challenging for all of us to continue an exercise program in the winter, try to keep your horse in at least a light level of consistent exercise. This will allow him to maintain good cardiovascular and muscular fitness, as well as encourage intestinal motility and mental health.
  • Falling temperatures, winds and rain will result in increased energy requirements for your horse to maintain appropriate body temperatures. To compensate for these energy requirements, increase calories in the diet with extra hay. Fermentation of hay in the hindgut produces more heat than digestion of concentrate feeds. 
  • Due to increased energy requirements, many horses will lose weight over the winter. Heavy hair coats can make it difficult to recognize when this occurs. Be sure to track body condition with a weight tape or by feeling over your horse’s ribs on a regular basis.
  • Intestinal parasites and poor dental health can decrease your horse’s utilization of feed. Be sure to have your horse’s teeth checked at least once a year and have fecal egg counts performed routinely.
  • Often horses will choose to drink less water in cold weather, which can predispose them to certain types of colic. A horse should ideally drink 8 to 12 gallons of water every day. You can help encourage your horse to drink by providing salt licks and keeping water free of ice. If possible, water temperatures should be kept between 45°F to 60°F. If this requires a water heater, keep it grounded with any wires covered and inaccessible to your horse.

Caring for horses over the winter can occasionally be a challenging task, particularly on days when we ourselves do not want to leave the comfort of our homes. However, the better our horses are maintained in the wintertime, the better their condition will be when spring comes and it’s time to ride and compete.

For equine care and 24/7 emergency, call 360.568.3111.

Written by Annie King, DVM, during her time as an equine ambulatory veterinarian at Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital