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Keep your horses healthy this winter

By Rick Thomason

University of Tennessee
Johnson County Extension Director

As winter is upon us, it is important to consider the impact of winter weather on equine management practices.  Often, horses acclimate well to cold temperatures, and are typically maintained well outdoors, but Jennie Ivey, University of Tennessee Extension Equine Specialist, says special considerations should be given to the horses’ nutritional needs, and overall maintenance to ensure they maintain good health and welfare in the cooler months.
Despite horses having a higher water intake requirement per day in cold ambient temperatures, colder water temperatures can reduce how much horses will drink per day.  “On average, a 1000-pound horse will consume approximately 10 gallons of water per day, but this amount can vary greatly depending on the horse’s diet, activity level, and general health,” said Ivey.  “Make sure water troughs or buckets are defrosted at least twice a day and let horses drink their fill during these times.  Also, if using an electric water heater, make sure to keep the cord and other hazards away from curious horses.”  The equine specialist adds that snow and ice are not adequate sources of water intake for horses.​​
Low temperatures, high winds and precipitation can increase the amount of energy horses need per day in order to maintain body temperature.  “It is best to provide extra energy to horses by feeding extra hay or other forage rather than increasing concentrates,” Ivey states.  “Since the amount of heat produced from fermentation of fiber contained in hay is greater than the amount of heat produced when the horse digests concentrates, supplementation with grain or concentrate is needed when a horse is having difficulty maintaining weight or body condition.”
Ivey also recommends owners make sure to check a horse’s body condition regularly by feeling the horse’s body, especially since the long winter hair coat can easily hide weight gain or loss.  “Ideally, a horse should consume two percent of their body weight (dry matter basis) in forage per day.  For example, a 1000-pound horse will eat 15 to 20 pounds of hay daily. That’s the equivalent of roughly one small square bale of 40-60 pounds every few days.”  Ivey says the exact number of bales needed for winter feeding will depend on the weight of the bale, how much the horse consumes per day, amount of waste and the horse’s activity level.  She recommends owners submit forage samples for testing to determine the nutritional content and the amount of nutrients provided to your horse daily.
A horse’s winter hair coat does an excellent job of insulating from the cold winter temperatures.  Although horses may not choose to seek protection from the elements, horses should have access to shelter from wind, precipitation and other winter weather conditions.  Ivey says, “Shelter can be natural, such as a tree line or rock formation, or constructed, such as a run-in or stall barn.  Ensure shelter is large enough to accommodate all horses in the turn out area to prevent any horses being excluded based on herd hierarchies.”  Constructed shelters should allow for 150 square feet per mature horse, at a minimum, she advises.
If possible, maintain exercise programs and turnout throughout winter months.  “Confinement and limited exercise can lead to respiratory issues, lower leg swelling (edema or stocking up) and colic,” cautions Ivey. Use care to avoid icy areas, and spread sand, salt or wood ash to increase traction.