Winter Horse Care Considerations
Heather K. Hoyns ,DVM. Evergreen Equine of VT, Reading, VT

Winter is just around the corner. You want to give your horse the best care, so here are some winter horse care tips to help

Water: One of the most important things you can do for your horse this winter is to provide him with liquid water, ideally warm. Horses are more prone to colic, especially impaction colic, during the winter and supplying plentiful water helps to keep your horse hydrated and helps to prevent colic. Horses will drink up to 30% more water if it is warm, so it makes good sense to provide warmed water for your horse. Heated stock tanks or heated water buckets are convenient ways to provide ‘round-the-clock warm water for your horse. If you don’t have access to electricity for water, bring warm water to your horse at least twice a day. In either case, wrapping your bucket or tank with Tek-foil (an insulated, foil-covered bubble wrap, available in most hardware stores) will help to keep the water warmer longer. While horses will eat some snow, relying on this it to provide your horse’s water is not a good idea. They don’t consume enough, and warming it to body temperature requires a lot of energy.

Feed (Hay/Grain): This is the fuel to keep your horse warm and healthy. Hay should be the major portion of his feed. While many people increase their horse’s grain in the winter, it is actually the hay portion of his diet that should be increased. The digestion of hay produces more heat (which keeps him warmer) than the digestion of grain. Providing a bit of extra hay, especially in a slow-feeder hay bag, also keeps him occupied longer and mimics grazing, so your horses is less likely to chew on your barn or develop stomach ulcers. This is a good time to assess your hay supply. Do you have enough to get your horse through until May/June when you’ll get next year’s hay? If you don’t store all of your winter’s hay in your barn, have you arranged for a steady hay supply for this winter and into the spring? If not, check now with your hay supplier. Don’t wait until April when all the hay is gone. Look closely at your horse’s body condition. Is he too fat or too thin? Does he need more (or less!) hay or grain? If you are concerned about your horse’s body condition, or have specific feeding questions, you should consult your horse’s veterinarian.

Hoof Care: Now is a good time to decide if your horse will be barefoot or shod this winter. If shod, it may be time to get our horse “sharp-shod”, either with borium or studs, and consider snow pads. We’ve been fond of the “Hoof grips” rim pads. They allow the sole to be open, but (usually) keep snow from balling up in the foot. If your horse is to be barefoot, try not to pull his shoes or trim him just before the ground freezes hard to avoid sore, bruised feet. The wet fall weather we’ve had recently has led to a larger number of hoof abscesses, as well as an increase in thrush. Daily cleaning & occasional thrush medication application can help keep thrush at bay. Remember, that even though you are riding less, your horse still needs to have his feet trimmed during the winter too.

Vaccinations: Winter can be cold and flu season for horses, too (just like it is for us). They are often moved to barns where there are more horses, the doors are kept closed, and dust and moisture levels rise. This can lead to coughs and flu. We strongly recommend that horses (especially those that are boarded, are old or are very young) receive a vaccination against Flu and Rhino in the late fall/early winter.

Body/Blankets: Blanketing horses is probably one of the most contentious winter issues. While many horses can go without a blanket most of the time (providing they have shelter from the wind/rain), every horse should at least have a waterproof rain sheet available. Healthy horses with a full winter coat and access to a shed generally do not require a blanket under most circumstances. Their insulating coats will keep the snow on top, and keep them dry underneath. But a cold, driving rain when temperatures hover around freezing will penetrate their coats, so this would be a good time to wear a rain sheet. For horses in work throughout the winter, clipping part or all of their coat will allow them to sweat less and cool out more quickly. Clipped horses do need to be blanketed, but don’t overdo it. They need to be warm, but not to the point of sweating. They will probably need a lighter blanket when inside than when turned out. A lighter blanket will be needed for warmer weather, a heavier one, or layered blankets, for colder days. Old horses may also benefit from winter blanketing. If your horse is blanketed, have you looked at your horse’s blankets recently? Are they clean, repaired & ready to go for the winter? Do they fit your horse and not rub at the withers or point of shoulder? Whether your horses is blanketed or not, it is important to regularly groom your horse, and check for any skin conditions such as dermatopholis (aka “rain rot”).

Lameness Issues: If your horse is lame, why wait until spring to see if he “has healed”?  Wouldn’t it be great to get the lameness issue diagnosed and treated now, rather than waiting until spring/summer riding & competing?

Deworming: Don’t forget about parasite control during the fall/winter. Late fall is a good time to deworm for tapeworms with a product containing Praziquantel. It is also a good time to deworm for bots and strongyles so they don’t overwinter in your horse. Pinworms, while not dangerous, occasionally is a problem of stabled horses; increased tail rubbing can be a sign that your horse has pinworms. Call your veterinarian if you have any questions about winter fecal egg counts or which dewormer would be best for your horse now.

After graduating Magna Cum Laude with a B.S. in Animal Science from Cook College, Rutgers University, with a special interest in Nutrition, Dr. Hoyns then went on to Cornell University, where she received her DVM degree in 1981. She practiced Equine Medicine in New Jersey for 5 years before relocating to Vermont in 1986.