Ah, winter: a season of refreshingly crisp days that are so short that it’s almost impossible to leave work in time to arrive at the barn before darkness falls. Unless you’re one of the lucky riders who gets to escape to Florida for several months, your priority now becomes figuring out how many layers you can possibly wear while still being able to pull on riding boots. But what about your horse—how can you also help him adapt to the frozen landscape that is now your farm? Dressage Today asked a few professionals to give us their advice when it comes to weathering the winter. Here’s what they had to say:
“If I’m cold, my horse must be cold.” Not necessarily. Millions of years of evolution have provided horses with a digestive system that generates body heat as well as a natural thermal blanket: their hair coat. As the fall season approaches, a horse’s coat increases both in length and density and also has the ability to fluff out in cold weather, trapping a layer of air in the coat, which provides an extra layer of insulation.
Dr. Tim Strathman knows cold. Prior to joining Equine Medical Associates in relatively temperate Lexington, Kentucky, three years ago, he practiced veterinary medicine in northern Illinois for three decades. “Horses have a tremendous ability to acclimate to their environment when given the opportunity,” he said. “Unfortunately, many of the things people do with show and sport horses interfere with that opportunity to acclimate, such as locking them up in barns, clipping and blanketing, feed routines, etc. All of these things can contribute to potential health issues.”
Strathman explained that for most horses, if the basic requirements for adequate food, water and a shelter option are provided, they are often happier and healthier outside even in harsh winter conditions. “Here in Kentucky, you will see bands of broodmares outside in all weather and the horses are better for it. You’ll occasionally see a blanket on one, but usually it’s a special-needs case,” he noted. “Even when they have access to large run-in sheds, more often than not they choose to stand outside, even when it’s 20 degrees below zero. That’s what they naturally choose as being best for them.”
“To blanket or not to blanket”—that is the question. Want to start a firestorm on Internet chat rooms? Ask whether or not you should blanket your horse. While opinions vary widely, the bottom line is to figure out what is best for your horse and his situation.
In the most general sense, several scenarios where blanketing should be considered include: if a horse is body-clipped; isn’t acclimated to a cold environment (such as shipped north from a warmer climate); is underweight, unhealthy or a senior and/or if the weather will cause the horse to become wet and no shelter is available.
“If possible and if a horse is only ridden occasionally, I personally feel they’re better off growing hair,” said Strathman. “On the other hand, you’re limited by your expectations for the horse. If the horse is regularly worked in cold weather, there is a distinct advantage to him having a short hair coat. It’s not healthy for a hairy horse to be standing around wet with sweat in cold weather, taking hours to dry.”
But Strathman emphasized that putting a blanket on a horse with the best of intentions can backfire. “By far the biggest mistake I see people make is not taking their horses’ blankets off to look at them,” he explained. “It’s one thing if they’re in a regular training program where the blankets are removed each day for riding. People may mean well, but when they put a blanket on the horse for weeks or even months at a time, yet don’t ride that often due to the weather, bad things can happen. I’ve seen pressure sores from poor-fitting blankets, nasty skin conditions, even marked changes in body weight that go unnoticed because the caretaker doesn’t see the horse—they only see the blanket.”
With or without a blanket, skin conditions can be a painful annoyance for your horse in the wet winter months. “We often see dermatitis issues, rainrot and scratches during that time of year, including on horses with long hair coats who are outside and aren’t groomed regularly,” Strathman added. “It’s just something that needs to be monitored. I don’t think it’s something you can necessarily anticipate or prevent, but it illustrates the importance of regular grooming and careful observation of your horse regardless of season.”
“It’s really cold outside—I’d better give my horse an extra scoop of grain.” While digestion of food is a primary source of warmth for horses, increased caloric needs don’t necessarily mean owners should blindly throw extra grain in the feed tub. “First of all, the amount of food a horse needs in winter depends in part on his housing situation,” noted Strathman. “Horses who are left outside in a cold environment will certainly benefit from carrying a little more weight and having more food, primarily in roughage form. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is simply not providing enough hay when it’s cold. But for many show horses kept inside, their environment doesn’t change so much, so they don’t necessarily need big dietary adjustments for winter.”
Instead of blindly “up feeding” in winter, Eric Haydt, senior vice president of business development at Triple Crown Nutrition, Inc., explained that careful monitoring of body condition and making corresponding feed adjustments is most important. “Depending on how far north you live, horses will need to expend more energy staying warm. Obviously, the colder it is, the more calories the horse will need, which is generally about 15 to 20 percent more calories below approximately 30 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Haydt explained that while hard keepers may benefit from some alfalfa in the diet, most horses do well throughout the winter on a good grass hay, and added that even seemingly dead winter pasture provides some calories. “Generally, I think the best way to adjust for winter feeding is to adjust the amounts of what you are currently feeding in both hay and feed, but not necessarily change feeds,” Haydt continued. “But if you are using a ration-balancer-type of feed in the summer and need more calories in the winter, then switching or adding another feed may be necessary.”
Adding a flaxseed-type oil to a horse’s diet, Haydt noted, will provide calories and omega-3 fatty acids that are lost by not having access to green grass. But using more supplements just because it’s cold won’t necessarily serve a purpose. “You can often avoid supplements just by feeding more, often just in hay, which is usually also a less expensive option,” he said.
Haydt also advised that senior horses may have special dietary needs in winter. “Because of longer hair coats, horses can lose weight through the winter without the owner really noticing until they shed in spring, and this seems especially true with senior horses,” he explained. “Fall may be a good time to switch older horses to senior diets especially if you notice them starting to have trouble eating hay, and, as noted earlier, blanketing senior horses in winter to help conserve body heat and expend fewer calories keeping warm may be a good idea.”
“My horse will drink more if given warm water instead of cold.” Some studies have shown that horses will drink more volume of water if it is a lukewarm temperature versus cold. “It’s all about what they are used to,” said Strathman. “When people have heated waterers in their barns, that’s what horses learn to like. It sounds like a no-brainer, but the single most important factor is don’t let water freeze. Horses must have ready access to ice-free water all the time.”
Strathman cautioned that horse owners may not realize the impact of the transition from summertime nutrition, where a horse will typically have regular access to grass (which has a high percentage of water), to winter’s dry forage-only diet. “This is where I sometimes see people underestimate their horses’ additional need for water consumption because literally everything they eat is now dry and it can cause major problems like impaction colic,” he explained.
But in the pursuit of maintaining a horse’s water supply in frigid temperatures, utmost caution must be taken with auxiliary heat sources. “It goes without saying that horses and electricity don’t mix well,” Strathman noted. “Heated water buckets are a common sight around barns in winter, but people often don’t do enough to conceal the cord and horses can’t seem to resist chewing on them. Ground-fault circuit interrupter [GFCI] outlets are always a good idea.” (GFCI outlets protect people and animals from electrical shock. For instance, if a horse chews on the cord, hopefully the outlet will trip to stop electricity from flowing before it electrocutes the horse.)
“I don’t think my horse is drinking enough—I’m going to give him a bran mash.” Hang on to that feed tub! While the thought of feeding your horse a nice warm bran mash may seem like a great idea, it probably won’t help much in actually getting any quantity of water into your horse’s gut or have any real nutritional benefits.
Since the amount of moisture even in a soupy bran mash is a drop in the bucket compared to your horse’s daily requirement, the only real benefit may be in making you feel better about doing something to help your horse cope with cold weather. “It will help to get some additional water in horses, but it doesn’t add much to the total volume of water intake a horse needs—most people who feed a bran mash typically don’t feed enough to make a difference either with water intake or nutritionally.” said Haydt. “In fact, wheat bran has a reverse calcium to phosphorous ratio and in larger amounts can have a negative nutritional effect by unbalancing the horse’s diet. So in my opinion, concentrating on maintaining normal water consumption is more important than warm mashes.”
Strathman agreed. “I honestly don’t feel that bran mashes have any value regarding water consumption. If you are concerned and want to get more water in the horse, I’ve found the best way to deal with it is to soak the hay,” he explained. “Fill a hay bag, submerge it in a clean muck bucket of water and leave it for 30 minutes before hanging up. Then the horse is eating wet hay, and I’ve seen much better results with this than any bran mash.”
“It’s chilly in here—better close up the barn so the horses stay warm.” While keeping the barn doors and windows wide open may be unbearably drafty in the winter months, closing the barn up tight can be just as miserable for your horse as adequate ventilation and fresh air are critical to his health.
With a barn full of high-performance dressage horses in Dorsten, Germany, U.S. dressage team rider Jennifer Hoffmann noted that one of her bigger challenges in winter is keeping a balance of good airflow and climate control in the stable. “With a busy competition schedule, even through the winter on the indoor circuit, I have to try to make sure none of my horses catch a cold or start coughing,” Hoffmann explained. “Instead of closing up the barn and having the air get stagnant, I like to keep windows open at night and blanket the horses rather heavily with multiple blankets. This allows us to keep the stable temperature cooler and therefore the air is much better,” she added. “But during the day when we are working, I do tend to close the windows after the stable has been bedded and all sweeping is finished, as it’s more comfortable for people working inside and also to avoid drafts when horses are coming in sweaty from work.”
“Winter’s here—time to either pull my horse’s shoes or break out the borium.” As with most aspects of equine health, making dramatic seasonal changes to your horse’s hoof situation can be more detrimental than helpful.
As the days get colder and the athletic demands for horses often decrease, many owners recognize a time-honored tradition of pulling shoes for the winter. But Central Kentucky farrier Donny Brandenburg noted that this practice isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation. “It all depends on the individual horse,” he said. “If they can be sound and comfortable without shoes for the appropriate level of activity during the winter, it never hurts to give them a break. But some horses may need the support or protection of their regular shoeing regimen regardless of season.”
Strathman agreed. “I have had cases where people ride all summer and then ask their farrier to pull the shoes and trim them up to turn out for the winter, and then call me wondering why the horse is hobbling around,” he said. “If you’re going to pull shoes, I recommend not trimming them—leave the feet a little long for a while so the horse can adjust before having your farrier come back to trim. It’s an easy way to avoid any possible problems.”
Horses continuing their athletic endeavors in the winter may need additional traction and snow protection, but again Brandenburg advised owners to beware of too much of a good thing. “Adding borium to shoes is great for grip on ice and snow, but it can easily be too much traction and over time place unnecessary stress on soft tissues,” he cautioned. “More often I recommend using small tungsten drive-in studs on the shoes. I also use snow pads—both the rim and full-coverage types—and have found that they do help keep snow from accumulating into balls inside the bottom of the hoof.”
“Am I doomed to endless rounds in the indoor?” Time to think outside the box. Having lived in Germany from 1989 to 2000 and then again for the last seven years, Hoffmann knows firsthand the challenges of trying to keep her USEF long-listed Grand Prix mounts, Florentinus V and Rubinio NRW, fit and fresh for competition during the wet and cold European winters. One of her secrets is simply braving the elements.
“We have an amazing facility here in Dorsten with super footing in multiple different types of arenas, so we always make sure to ride the horses outside as long as it’s not pouring rain or the ground is frozen,” Hoffmann explained. “We also have a huge jumping arena that has a roof but is open on the sides so you get the feeling of being outside. Even when it’s cold we go out for walks in the forest and on the racetrack and all of our horses still get turned out, even in the snow. It is absolutely awful for me to be closed up in an indoor for all the winter months and I know my horses feel the same.”
Hoffmann also utilizes some additional tools to keep her horses in peak form even when the weather outside is frightful. “If it’s very cold or windy, we always put quarter sheets on our horses who are clipped and sometimes our warm-up routine will be a little longer than normal,” she said. “I have an amazing magnetic blanket that I do use on some of my horses—some wear it before riding, some after. It all depends on each horse’s individual needs.
“We also use our solarium [which includes a blow-dryer-like system] a lot in the winter,” Hoffmann continued. “Some horses are put under it for 10 minutes before riding and almost all of them spend time there after riding. Last but not least, I make sure all my horses go back into their stalls completely dry and groomed with their stable blankets on.”
In summary, winter horse care is mostly a matter of common sense and good horsemanship. “It’s important to remember to try to treat horses like horses,” Strathman concluded. “Within the limitations of athletic demands, allow them to live a little more naturally if possible, as this can prevent a lot of man-made problems that we unintentionally create.”