5 Common Winter Horse Care Mistakes

By Laci Jones

With the winter season in full swing, it is especially important to make certain your livestock are well taken care of.

“Winter is the time where we see the most colic in horses, many horse care issues and a lot of respiratory and skin issues,” said Shem Oliver, DVM, board certified surgeon and partner at Performance Equine Associates in Thackerville, Okla.

Ensure your horse is taken care of all season long by avoiding these five common winter horse care mistakes.

Over Blanketing

It may be difficult not to feel guilty about leaving a horse out in the cold. Horse owners may be tempted to rush to their horse’s aid and pile blankets on them, but Oliver said that may not be the best idea.

“I see both sides of the spectrum—over blanketing and under blanketing,” he said. “Usually under blanketing is less of a problem.”

Oliver said he rarely sees an under-blanketed horse because horses with short hair coats year-round are often blanketed appropriately. Oliver said owners that have horses living outside are more likely to over-blanket.

“Those horses adapt by growing a longer hair coat,” Oliver explained. “An owner puts the heavy winter blanket on them when it gets cold, but doesn’t take it off of them at the appropriate time.”

Over blanketing can cause overheating, which may lead to dehydration as well as other health problems. Oliver said over blanketing can also cause a horse to sweat, which may allow fungus to grow and lead to skin conditions like dermatitis. Sweating can also make the horse colder.

“The main thing with blankets is you have to adjust it based on how your horse responds to blanketing,” Oliver said. “If you put the blanket on when it is too warm and they start to sweat, the next time you don’t need to blanket until it is a little cooler.”

Light blankets should be placed on horses with little to no hair at around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, he said. When the temperature drops to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, a heavier blanket is required. Long-haired horses may need a blanket at colder temperatures.

Oliver said more management is required than just putting a blanket on and turning them out to the pasture.

“I see people who leave a blanket on for a week,” he said. “They pull it off and see the horses have a cut or rub sore that the blankets cover up.”

He said rub sores can be caused by an ill-fitted blanket.

“Checking horses appropriately every day, taking the blanket off, making sure it’s clean and the horse is clean underneath is key if you are going to blanket a horse,” he added.

Lack of Shelter

A common mistake made by horse owners is horses not having enough shelter from the elements.

“I don’t think you can have too much shelter,” Oliver said. “The only way you can have too much shelter is if they are not used to being confined to a stall. You can have issues with colic.”

If an owner has horses housed in a barn, the barn should have proper ventilation. Proper ventilation eliminates excess moisture and condensation buildup, which impacts a horse’s respiratory health.

“At minimum, horses need to have a three-sided shelter in their pasture where they can get out of the wind and elements,” Oliver said.

Horses will more readily go into a shelter if there is a large opening, Oliver said. A three-sided shelter also allows horses to take shelter during weather storms and return when it passes. The opening of the three-sided shelter should face away from the elements.

“The south side is usually open because the wind usually comes from the west or north as well as rain or snow,” Oliver said.

How large a shelter is needed depends on the number of horses in the pasture, Oliver said.

“If you have 20 horses in a pasture and only one three-sided shelter, then they are not going to cram themselves in there,” Oliver said. “Horses, while they will get along, are not going to pack themselves in a shelter.”

No Beauty Maintenance

Due to winter weather conditions, a horse owner may not see his horse every day. An owner may not catch a problem that may occur when they are not riding or grooming as often.

“You see things like their hoof care becoming neglected,” Oliver said. “They get foot abscesses, thrush and/or they get long feet.”

Horses travel on uneven, frozen ground that could possibly crack and break hooves. Regular hoof trimming or shoeing is important even in the winter, he explained.

“The main thing is treating horses like you would as if you were riding them every day including grooming their hair coat and giving them a bath even though it is cold,” Oliver said.

A horse owner needs to make certain the horse is dry before going back outside. The drying process takes longer in the winter, he added.

By not grooming or riding, an owner may not notice a horse’s illnesses, injuries or weight loss. Grooming daily allows owners to check for parasites, wounds, or weight loss.

“Maintain a regular schedule of grooming care and hoof care,” Oliver said. “A lot of times when people aren’t riding like they would in the summer, it slips their mind. It is easy to happen to anybody.”

Not Increasing Rations

“A lot of times, people feed horses less in the winter,” Oliver said. “Because they are riding less, the owners think the horses need less feed, but they actually need more feed in the winter.”

While horses do not expend as much energy riding, they will burn more calories to stay warm in the cooler weather. He said underfeeding is why horses “go downhill” in the winter and can cause weight loss.

The horses might not need as much grain, Oliver said. However, the horses need more forage in the form of hay or increased fiber in their diet. Forage provides an excellent source of calories and the large amounts of fiber helps keep horses warmer in the winter, he added.

“A good rule of thumb that I learned in vet school is they need about one percent more forage for every degree below freezing it gets,” Oliver said. “For example, if it’s in the 20s, they need 10 percent more feed. If they are getting 20 pounds of feed, then you will need to add two pounds more to their feed to maintain.”

Vitamins and minerals are always required, especially in the winter, he said. Adequate levels of vitamins are available in good quality horse feed and hay, but a vitamin and mineral supplement can help.

“Keeping electrolytes, salt blocks and minerals out for horses will help keep a balanced diet, but it will also stimulate them to drink more water,” Oliver said.

Dehydration

Oliver said horse dehydration may be the number one mistake amongst horse owners. Water begins to freeze as temperatures begin to drop, and snow and ice cannot be substituted for drinking water.

“Usually if a horse runs into a problem in the winter, it is because their water if frozen over and they get dehydrated or the horse doesn’t drink as much because the water is cold,” Oliver said.

A horse will drink water above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, Oliver explained. Fresh, warm water is necessary for horse hydration, he added.

If a horse is not properly hydrated, they will consume less ration regardless of the quality of feed. Grain and hay fed mostly in the winter months contains less than 15 percent moisture, where pasture grasses contain approximately 80 percent moisture.

Dehydration in horses can lead to weight loss, lack of energy and impaction colic, Oliver said.

Investing in a heating device specifically designed for waterers and troughs can help keep horses hydrated all winter long.

He said horses are more neglected in the winter. An owner should check their horse each day for injuries and to make sure they are drinking enough, he added.

In addition to these five common mistakes, Oliver said owners should make sure to exercise their horses year round.

“The main thing is nothing should change as far as the time of year,” Oliver said. “Not changing their schedule from summer to winter is key.”