Horses require extra attention when low temperatures are accompanied by wet and windy conditions. Here’s how to help your horse cope with winter weather.
The 2018-2019 winter has served up roller coaster temperatures and record precipitation in Kentucky. Our equine friends are quite adaptive to these variations, but when the temperatures dip low and are accompanied by wet and windy conditions, horse owners must provide extra care to help animals cope and thrive.
“Horses have three basic needs—shelter, feed, and water,” said Bob Coleman, PhD, horse specialist for the University of Kentucky (UK) College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. “You can easily manage horses outside, but you’ll have to provide a few creature comforts.”
Shelter should provide protection from the wind and the different forms of precipitation Kentucky usually receives in winter, such as freezing rain, sleet, snow, and ice. Coleman said horses’ hair coats can effectively protecting them from cold temperatures, but they stand up less to wind and wet conditions.
“If a horse’s coat gets wet in rain or snow, it can dramatically chill them,” he said. “You may need to bring them inside a barn to dry and warm up. Otherwise, three-walled shelters that guard against prevailing winds will do a nice job of protecting horses from the elements.”
It’s also helpful to have bedding in outdoor shelters as long as they drain well and stay dry.
Horses are very resilient and cold-tolerant, and they can comfortably withstand air temperatures down to around 13 degrees Fahrenheit. When the temperatures drop below that, horse owners should think about their feeding program. In cold weather, horses need more energy to stay warm.
“Adequate high-quality feed is very important, especially in the winter,” Coleman said. “As horses eat and digest hay, digestion creates internal heat which can help them maintain body temperature.”
If owners are unsure of their hay quality, slowly adding a daily concentrate to the feed can be helpful in providing a complete ration.
Many horse owners use blankets, which can be helpful but require extra attention.
“You need to remove the blanket periodically to groom and check the horse’s coat,” Coleman said. “We have some extreme temperature variations, and if that blanket gets wet or if it warms up and traps moisture from the horse sweating, it could be detrimental to the horse’s health and coat condition. So, if you must use blankets, make sure you check the horse often.”
It’s also important to ensure blankets are sized properly. A blanket that is too big or too small can cause coat-damaging friction among other issues.
Water is still the most crucial element in winter horse care. If a horse drinks less water, they might eat less feed as well. And, proper digestion requires adequate water intake.
“It’s not uncommon to see an increase in impaction colics in horses that eat high forage diets without drinking enough water,” Coleman said. “Make sure the water you’re offering isn’t too cold and check for problems with your tank heaters.”
Aimee Nielsen is an agricultural communications specialist within UK’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.