Horse Health in Winter

Here's how to keep your horse healthy and comfortable during those dreaded days of winter.

Winter Stall


Most horse owners dread the unavoidable annual march toward winter, when sub-zero temperatures and frozen precipitation provide a myriad of unpleasant challenges. Here are some tips to help make sure your horse is properly managed throughout the coldest months of the year.

Shelter from the Storm

Protection from the elements is a basic tenet of animal care, and owning a horse is no exception. But what constitutes proper housing during the winter months? In many cases, adult horses in good health can tolerate winter weather with as little as a run-in shed in a pasture for protection against wind and wetness.
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Winter Weight

Weight loss is the most common health issue seen in horses during the winter. Knowing when and how much extra to feed can be tricky. Research has shown that an average adult horse requires extra calories when temperatures dip below 18 F. For every degree under 18 F, a horse will require a roughly 1 percent increase in energy.
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Just as feed considerations are important for your horse during the winter, water is too. The greatest danger in winter is a frozen water source. Horses than don’t consume enough water are in danger of impaction colic, which is potentially life-threatening. For this reason, water consumption in the winter should be carefully monitored.
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For your horse’s skin health, whether or not you choose to ride during the winter should not impact your regular grooming routine. Horses benefit greatly from daily grooming, and in the winter, this is an excellent way to warm yourself up. Grooming also allows you to take a close look at your horse and find minor scrapes and bumps that can hide in a winter coat.
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Perhaps the quintessential question of winter horsekeeping is, to blanket or not to blanket? If you decide to clip your horse for the winter because of your active riding schedule, that’s an easy answer: blanket. But if you leave your horse’s natural winter coat alone, will he need something extra? The answer depends on how thick your horse’s coat is, the age and overall health of the horse, how severe the weather gets, and your horse’s housing.
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Winter Riding

Although the thought of riding in the winter may not sound pleasant, there are many good reasons to maintain at least a baseline fitness throughout the season. Horses with osteoarthritis benefit greatly from a winter exercise routine. Restricted mobility in the winter can cause swelling in the lower limbs and extra stiffness in joints; even 15 minutes of walking each day can help maintain circulation and joint mobility.
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The Older Horse

Senior horses are the most challenging to care for during the winter months. Generally, poor dentition is the reason for weight loss that so commonly plagues this age group year-round, with cold weather increasing a caloric deficit. Worn and missing teeth prevent the senior horse from properly chewing food, leading to fewer calories consumed. Older horses often have less efficient metabolisms as well, and require more energy to stay warm than a younger horse. For these reasons, a full physical exam, dental float, and fall vaccine boosters prior to cold weather (such as a rhino/flu booster if needed) is a good idea for senior horses.
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Winter horsekeeping isn’t all bitter wind and mud. A pretty fallen snow is great to enjoy either from the barn or out on the trail. With a few winter weather considerations to keep in mind, you can enjoy the cold in the good company of your horse.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe!


  1. Our barn is well ventilated so even though we do not clip, on cold days/nights I do blanket which varies from a lite sheet to the heavy weight blankets according to the weather, and also if I leave the top windows open.


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