How to keep a horse warm in winter
Horses can do fine living outside through the winter. As long as 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.
Cold temperatures alone don’t generally make horses uncomfortable, but wind and moisture can be difficult for them to tolerate, so they must be able to escape the elements. The best solution is a structural shelter, but a hedge or trees can provide some respite too.
The phrase “bulking up for winter” definitely applies to horses! They expend significantly more calories keeping warm in the winter than they do any other time of year. Good quality hay needs to be the staple of any winter diet, especially for horses that are turned out a lot. Ideally, they should have dry, fresh hay available always to keep their caloric losses less than their gains.
Provide water not ice
Impaction colic increases during the winter months because horses aren’t drinking enough and there is little moisture in the hay compared to grass. Consequently, they won’t be able to digest hay and get the most of its nutrition if they aren’t hydrated well, even in the cold. Providing constant fresh drinking water is a relatively easy way to prevent a common winter colic that could end tragically.
Rug consistently and check frequently
Putting a rug on a horse that lives outside can be necessary to keep them warm, dry, and happy. However, gremlins can lurk under a rug that can create a problem if not detected early. Bacterial skin disease, commonly known as rain scald, can occur if a horse with a thick hair coat is repeatedly sweating and then drying under a rug. Changes in body condition, such as a horse that is losing weight rapidly, can also be missed if the rug isn’t removed frequently to check. It’s a good idea to take note of any new lumps and bumps that may not be seen with the rug on.
Be smart about clipping
Horses have a thick winter hair coat designed to protect them. Many riders clip their horses through the winter months to remove heavy hair that is slow to dry after they’ve ridden. It’s fine to turn out clipped horses in poor winter weather providing they’re appropriately rugged up.
However, horses that live out 24/7 need their winter coat, plus real diligence is required regarding rugs when the temperatures fluctuate. It isn’t fair to a horse to remove his winter woollies and then not rug him up well enough.
Care for older horses
Cold weather affects older horses more than it does their younger companions. With knowledge and planning, a veteran can stay comfortable and healthy, and getting through winter doesn’t have to be an ordeal. The extra care that is required for older horses for feeding and rugging helps them maintain weight and keep warm all winter long.