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5 Cold Weather Tips to Keep Horses Safe

Keeping the chill out

Bitterly cold temperatures are dealing many eastern states a blow. Snow is already on the ground and more continues to fall. Here are five important tips to keep your horses healthy and safe during the cold days of winter from Liz Arbittier, VMD, staff veterinarian at Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center.

1. Provide adequate shelter.

Horses can do fine living outside through the winter as long as some crucial needs are met. If they are metabolically healthy, receive enough calories, develop a nice winter hair coat, and have appropriate shelter, they can happily ride out a bad winter that has humans groaning. Most horses do not need to be blanketed, although waterproof / breathable blankets can help protect against driving wind and rain.

Cold temperatures alone do not generally make horses uncomfortable, but wind and moisture can be difficult for them to tolerate. Horses must be able to escape the elements. The best solution is a structural shelter that is big enough to allow all of the horses to safely get out of the weather. One horse with a very dominant personality that won’t allow more submissive types into the shed may be a problem, so owners need to evaluate the personalities in the herd to ensure no one is “left out in the cold.”

2. Provide adequate calories.

The phrase “bulking up for winter” is no joke! Horses expend significantly more calories keeping warm in the winter than they do any other time of year. High-quality hay should be the staple of any winter diet, especially for horses that are out a lot. They should have dry, fresh hay available at all times to keep their caloric losses less than their gains. Older horses or horses with significant dental disease that cannot eat hay productively need to be fed more frequently in a form that they can use, such as senior feeds.

3. Water is key.

One of the major causes for colic in the winter is an impaction caused by inadequate water intake. Technology has provided us with excellent solutions to the problem including heated water tubs and non-freezing automatic watering systems. If horses are outside, it is well worth the expense to run electricity to the fields to ensure a constant source of fresh water. Providing water is a relatively easy way to prevent a common winter colic that could end tragically.

4. Blanket consistently and check frequently.

Blanketing for horses that live outside can be a necessity to keep them warm, dry, and happy. However, things can lurk under a blanket that can create a problem if not detected early. Bacterial skin disease, commonly known as rainrot, can occur if a horse with a thick hair coat is repeatedly sweating and then drying under a blanket.
Changes in body condition, such as a horse that is losing weight rapidly, can also be missed if the blanket isn’t removed frequently. Finally, it is a good idea to take note of any new lumps and bumps that may not be seen with the blanket on.

5. Be smart about clipping.

Horses have a thick winter hair coat designed to protect them. Many people who ride throughout the winter find it helpful to clip their horses to remove heavy hair that slows drying time after a ride. It is fine to turn out appropriately blanketed, clipped horses in the winter weather.
However, owners should be very cautious about clipping horses that live outside through the winter because they will then need to be very diligent about blanketing as temperatures fluctuate. It isn’t fair to a horse to remove his winter woolies and then not blanket him well enough.
Owners who have clipped their horses entirely, including the head and ears, need to be diligent about keeping them inside during excessively cold temperatures, as frostbite can occur.
Utilize these tips to help keep your horses healthy and happy until spring brings back warmer temps.