Winterizing Your Horse

Winterizing Your Horse
by Catherine Hall DVM

Winter is upon us, and are you doing what's best to keep your horse happy and healthy during the cold?
Horses are good at adapting to cold situations as long as these factors are considered to help them thrive:
  •     Seasonal self regulation
  •     Comfort Level
  •     Weight and Condition
  •     Water intake

In the fall, horses begin to lay down extra body fat which also helps with insulation.  They also begin to grow a new, slightly long (or for some very long) hair coat.  These changes are based on the amount of light during the day, not the outside temperature.  That explains why in GA in the fall we will have thick hair coats on some horses when we still have temperatures in the 80's. Horses have a unique hair coat in which they can make their own "air blankets" to help keep them warm in the winter and cool in the summer.  They are able to make their hairs raise just a little or a lot trapping air within to form an insulating layer.  However, there are the exceptions to this, if it is raining hard, they are unable to adjust the soaked hair to keep the layer of insulation.  So providing shelter becomes important, but especially during the winter.  Now, your horse does not need a fancy stall, but something to get out of the weather such as a run in shed or even a thick bunch of trees.  Which this then brings us to the point of whether your horse needs to be blanketed or not.  We are always being asked whether or not blanketing is necessary.  Well most of the time, this is very much owner preference.   If unable to supply these facilities then your horse may need a turnout blanket during the winter, especially if there is a cold rain.  Also, some older horses or thin horses have a more difficult time regulating body temperature and these horses may require a turnout blanket.

Horses are very adapted to being able to help regulate their body temperatures with their food, primarily with hay. They are their own furnaces and their fuel is proper food.   Basically you need to "fuel the furnace" in horses to keep them toasty warm during the winter.  They are much better able to warm themselves than to cool themselves off.  They do this with good quality hay which is easy to digest.  Horses are considered hind gut fermenters with the digestion of forage which means they break down the hay particles in the cecum and large colon.  This process gives off long lasting heat to help the horse regulate its core body temperature during the most arctic winters.   With being provided a good quality hay in an appropriate amount the horse will get calories and heat from digestion.  The rule of thumb is that a horse needs 2% of its body weight in forage per day.  Therefore a 1000 pound horse should consume 20 pounds of hay per day.  Now, if we consider most flakes of bermuda hay weigh 4-5 pounds, then that horse should eat around 4-5 flakes per day.  Now this is on the average day, therefore, if you know it's going to be cold and even wet, they should receive slightly more.  Research has been performed in horses to show that every 5 pounds of hay a horse eats will raise its core body temperature one degree Fahrenheit for 4 hours.

Horses also utilize grains and high energy feeds for calories, but these will only keep them warm for a short period of time.    An exception to this statement would be a senior feed which is considered a complete feed-meaning it has enough forage chopped and mixed in to provide adequate nutrition without  the horse having to eat hay.

The comfort level of your horse is also very important during this time of year.  Is your horse bright and playful when the temperature is warmer and then static and uncomfortable in the coldest times?  Do you see your horse shivering?  Is your horse in a blanket and sweating?  A horse who is shivering, or even sweating if under a blanket, is going to utilize more energy in trying to keep warm.  Be aware of your horses mental status and any changes which may occur.  This can play a very important role in their overall health.

So, with all the information about feeding your horse and keeping them warm and protected from the environment, now let's remember to make sure our horses are maintaining their weight and condition during the cold times.  Winter can be deceiving for weight as horses grow a thick, longer hair coat which can mask a skinny horse, or ones which are blanketed may not have the blanket removed often enough to notice a drop or gain in weight.  You should lay your hands on your horse at least once a week and make sure they are not changing under their long hair coats or blankets. 

In the early 80's Texas A&M developed the Henneke Body Condition Score (BCS) scale to be used in horses.  It is a range from 1, being emaciate, to 9, being extremely obese.  The scale is based on feeling and looking and evaluates body fat (or lack of) over the ribs, behind the shoulder, over the withers, back and tail head and up the neck.

Here is a link to a BCS chart for your references:
Henneke Body Condition Score Chart

So, the important take home point here is during the winter we need to feel, feel, feel our horses to monitor for changes prior to them shedding in the spring.

And the last big import fact to remember about keeping horses happy and healthy during the winter is to monitor their water intake.  Foremost, the water source must be drinkable.  Now, this can vary between horses as to what each horse considers drinkable.  Usually clean water free of debris, algae or dirt.  During the winter, make sure the water is free of ice and/or slush.  Some horses will not drink the water if there are things floating in it, or it's frozen over and they have to break the ice.  Water helps to enable digestion to function at its peak, which we have learned is very important in helping to keep horses warm during the winter months.

There are various ways to encourage water intake in your horse:
    add water to your horses grain
    soak your horses hay to help increase water consumption
    provide a plain white salt block +/- a mineral block
    add one tablespoon table salt to their feed daily

Hope we have given you some helpful information for helping your horse out this winter and many winters to come.  As always, we are available for questions via phone at 478-825-1981 or email us at the following;

Dr. Cook

Dr. Hall

Teresa Owens

Elena Rixx

Thank you for reading! Let us know what topics you would like to see in future issues.