Six Tips to Help Keep Your Horse Healthy During Fall and Winter Weather

Horses in a winter pasture foraging for hay.
Horses in a winter pasture foraging for hay.

Whether you live in the North, South, East or West, now is the time to prepare for a healthier horse as fall and winter weather roll in making horse care more difficult in many areas. While fall is a time to fully enjoy horse ownership, it is also a time to prepare for inclement weather brought by winter.

I'm lovin' this winter weather. How about you?

I'm lovin' this winter weather. How about you?

Although horses are very adaptable to cold weather, managing their physical and nutritional needs takes some planning.

Although horses are very adaptable to cold weather, they must be managed sensibly during winter. Horses respond to cold in two ways: acutely (immediately) and chronically (adaptive or acclimatization).

Tip #1- Provide adequate shelter

The immediate response to a sudden change in temperature is for the horse to change its behavior, by seeking shelter from the cold and wind or to huddle together, to decrease heat loss. When weather becomes cold and windy, shelter should be provided. Although stalling is unnecessary for all horses, some protection from winter elements is important. If nothing else a three-sided shed with the open side opposite the prevailing wind usually serves to protect horses in most climates. Some younger horses may not be experienced in seeking shelter when the weather in intemperate and owners should make sure these younger horses are protected from the weather.

When checking barns and stalls look for drafty areas. Check barn doors, barn windows, and other areas for large drafts. Cover holes that would allow in too much cold air. Eliminate drafty areas, but leave spaces for fresh air to circulate. Good ventilation is critical. A barn that is "too tight" prevents any airflow from circulating and can lead to respiratory ailments.

Avoid frozen barn doors. Clean out areas beneath doors. Install or replace gutters above barn doors to redirect the flow of melting snow and other precipitation. De-icing products are sometimes necessary to create safe work areas around the barn.

Typically, horses require 10-21 days to adapt to the cold and the acclimation process will occur until approximately 5 degrees F or minus 15 degrees C. At this time physiological changes and human intervention, such as shelter and/or extra feed are needed to help the horse cope with the cold.

Keep cats and dogs away from treated areas. De-icing materials should not be ingested and can irritate padded paws.

Inspect light bulbs and electrical systems. Shorter days begin long before the cold weather sets in. Replace blown light bulbs and hire an electrician to make any necessary repairs to damaged wiring. A well-lit barn is easier to work in and is safer for horses, horse owners, and visitors.

Store battery-powered flashlights or lanterns in easily accessible locations. When winter storms interrupt the power supply, finding the way around a dark barn is challenging.

If the flashlight or lantern was used last year, check the batteries to be sure the light is ready to use.

Bed stalls deeper than normal. Additional bedding material insulates floors, keeping the floors and overall temperature of the barn warmer.

Stalls and barns need good ventilation during fall and winter months to prevent development of respiratory problems and other health conditions. Damp stalls and ammonia buildup should be kept to a minimum, and wherever possible, horses should continue to be turned out whenever possible.

Tip #2 - Pay attention to deworming and vaccination schedules

Internal parasites become active again this time of year as it cools and can proliferate in pastures. Make sure to perform a fecal egg count and deworm only if necessary.

Recent research has shown that approximately 20% of horses shed 80% of the parasite eggs found in a pasture. What this means is that if we deworm every horse every six weeks, we are drastically over-treating many horses, and under-treating some. Factor in the growing threat of drug resistance, and we are setting ourselves up for parasite control failure.

A better strategy is referred to as strategic deworming.  Strategic deworming involves:

  1. Identifying"“high shedders" - recognizing which horses are likely to be passing the largest number of parasite eggs
  2. Identifying efficacy of each class of dewormer against each type of parasite present on a given farm
  3. Pinpointing the best time to deworm horses against a particular parasite given the lifecycle of that parasite in your region

Each of these arms of a strategic deworming program requires collaboration with your veterinarian.  Your veterinarian can perform a test called a fecal egg count on a sample of your horse's manure to quantify the number and types of parasite eggs being shed. A quantitative analysis (one that gives a number) allows horses to be categorized as high, medium, or low shedders.  It is important to bear in mind that horses will shed different levels of eggs depending upon the time since last deworming treatment and the stage of the parasite lifecycle.  Therefore, this test should be repeated periodically.

Did you know?

Horses kept in a shelter (shed) can conserve up to 20% more body heat than horses kept in an exposed area. When temperatures drop below 5 degrees F or 15 degrees C horses require approximately 2% more feed per degree the temperature drops below this critical temperature. Feeding good quality hay is the best way to accomplish this.

The Fecal Egg Count Reduction Test allows you and your veterinarian to learn the efficacy of the classes of dewormer on the particular parasite population of your ranch. By measuring the fecal egg counts of each horse immediately before, and 14 days after, treatment with an anthelmintic drug, your veterinarian can evaluate the degree to which treatment with that drug reduced the parasite load, and whether that drug is effective against a particular parasite on your ranch.

By not routinely deworming every horse at an arbitrary frequency, strategic deworming reduces the frequency of exposure of a parasite population to a given drug and therefore provides some protection for a population of refugia.

Knowing which horses are shedding the largest numbers of parasites, what parasites are common in your horse population, which drugs are most effective against those parasites on your ranch, and how your climate affects parasite lifecycles will give you and your veterinarian the tools to protect your horses from parasitic disease.

In addition to parasite control, horse owners need to review vaccine schedules. With rapid developments in vaccine technology and a seemingly endless array of products on the market, it's often hard for horse owners to know how everything they need to know about the best protection for their horses.

Deciding what vaccine to give which horse and when to give it boils down to understanding three main factors:

  1. Risks of disease
  2. Vaccine safety
  3. Vaccine efficacy

The risk of disease for your horse is highly variable. This is why it is very important to consult with a local veterinarian in order to establish the risk to your animals. Important criteria for determining risk factors include the age of the horse, the horse's reproductive status, exposure to other horses, exposure to disease vectors such as mosquitoes, and the area in which you live.

You will also want to consider your horse's immune function - Older horses, horses that have been ill or stressed, or horses that have been treated with corticosteroids may have compromised immune systems.

Tip #3 - Maintain proper levels of fitness and conditioning

Before cold weather hits, take note of your horse's normal behavior during conditioning exercises. If you know your horse's healthy habits during a workout, it is easier to spot problems, like stiffness, lameness or cardiovascular issues. As weather becomes cooler, many horses are ridden less, but horse owners need to be aware of any changes in the physical condition of their horses.

If the horse is young or older, isn't used to much physical activity, or has health problems, you will need to maintain light exercise and gradually work up to a level that will either maintain or improve the horse's level of fitness during cold weather.

Horses that are stabled most of the time will require at least a 30 minute workout each day and will benefit most from an hour or more of exercise activity as conditions allow during inclement weather.

A quick warm-up prepares the horse for riding

A quick warm-up prepares the horse for riding

A cold weather warm-up is important for this horse and dedicated rider. Proper warm-up reduces the risk of injury.

A number of different activities can be used for warming up your horse in spite of cooler weather. In fact, any light physical exercise that gets the horse's musculoskeletal system working can serve as a warm-up depending on the age and condition of the horse. Allowing the horse to walk or trot at a nice, easy pace for 10 - 15 minutes works well for most horses

Longeing the horse at an easy pace to get it moving and the muscles active works well also.

If the horse has turn-out time in the pasture before beginning the daily workout, that will serve part of the warm-up.

The air temperature needs to be taken into consideration during the warm up. During cold weather, it will take longer for muscles to reach their ideal working temperature. A warming blanket or a heat lamp may be used during cold weather to warm the muscles prior to exercise.

After exercise, the horse will need a cool-down period. The main goal of the cool-down period is to get the horse to a point where it is, cool, dry, and relaxed, but not cold. If temperatures are cold, a blanket to help maintain body heat will be necessary once the horse's temperature and heart rate are back to normal

If you have questions about how much exercise your horse needs, talk with your veterinarian about developing a good daily workout regimen.

Tip #4 - Review nutritional needs and don't forget water!

As pastures begin to provide less forage and grass looses some of its nutritional quality in the colder months, horse owners should plan to supplement with another forage source such as hay, cubes or a complete pelleted feed. Preconditioning horses before the onset of cold temperatures helps to reduce the effect of cold weather on nutritional needs.

Meeting horse's nutritional needs during cold weather

Meeting horse's nutritional needs during cold weather

Cold weather may up your horses need for feed with higher nutritional value so consider higher quality hay and the addition of cubes of pelleted feed when necessary.

Here is a list of questions you can ask yourself about your horses and the answers will form the basis of your nutritional plan for winter feeding.

  • How much and how hard is your horse going to work this winter?
  • How much grazing will they have access to?
  • Is there snow in your region?

Preventing damage and loss of nutritional value are very important when it comes to storing feed for your horse. Many of the same rules that apply to the storing and feeding of hay are also important in storing and feeding grain concentrates, commercial feeds, supplements and other products.

Here are 15 rules to follow to preserve the quality of your hay, grain, feed stuffs, supplements, medications and other supplies for your horse:

  1. Be sure to keep all hay, feed stuffs and other supplies dry by making sure there are no roof leaks in any storage areas or any water drainage problems.
  2. Organize your storage by using indoor storage areas in sheds and barns wherever possible for hay, grains, complete feeds, supplements and other feed stuffs for your horse.
  3. Keep hay off the floor or ground by placing it on wooden pallets which you can often get from local businesses at no cost to you.
  4. Stack hay for good air flow and check hay often for heat build-up by inserting a thermometer through a pipe or inserting a metal rod into the center of bales, waiting 15 minutes and feeling the rod to see if heat is building up.
  5. Use older hay first by stacking new hay behind it.
  6. Keep hay in compacted bales as much as possible to decrease breakdown in quality because of exposure to air and sunlight
  7. If storing hay outside, protect it from sun and rain with tarps or covers and stack in a way for good water runoff.
  8. Check each bale as you open it to make sure it isn't moldy and doesn't contain foreign objects or other debris.
  9. Rodent proof your storage area and keep an eye out for rats and mice that might contaminate your hay. Having a barn cat can be of great help in keeping the rodent population under control.
  10. If you purchase grain or other feed stuffs in sacks, either store the sacks in metal bins or galvanized garbage cans with tight lids or empty the contents into metal bins or garbage cans to preserve quality and keep rodents and insects from damaging them.
  11. Always store all hay, grain, supplements and medications in a horse-proof area where horses cannot get to them. This will prevent accidental engorgement which can cause gastric dilatation and founder or the ingestion of supplements or medications that are a danger to the horse. If your horse gets into your grain supply or stored supplements and medications, call your veterinarian immediately.
  12. Read and follow the directions for storage on all complete feeds, supplements and medications. If necessary, keep refrigerated or store in a cool dark place according to directions.
  13. Always discard any damaged or outdated feed stuff, supplement, or medication.
  14. Keep special feeds, supplements and medications for each horse separately, and give only to the horse for which they are meant to be used.
  15. Maintain good housekeeping procedures throughout your storage, stable, tack, and barn areas to minimize pests, debris, and any contaminants that might reduce the quality of hay and other feed stuffs.

Maintaining your horse's water supply during cold weather

A water supply that is consistent during all months of the year becomes more important during the fall and winter seasons. Horses tend to reduce their water intake when temperatures fall. This also comes at a time when more dry forage is included in the diet, making intake of water very important to prevent impaction and colic. Water should be maintained between 45 and 65 degrees F and any ice removed. Horses should continue to drink 8 to 12 gallons a day, depending on activity level.

If you live in an area where freezing temperatures threaten your horse's water supply, insulate water hydrants and exposed pipes. Insulating tape can be purchased at most local hardware stores and is an inexpensive way to avoid frozen water supplies. Tank heaters for outdoor water troughs are also available at local farm supply stores. Purchase a heater designed for livestock tanks. Some heaters are only designed to bring water to a boil.

Protect your horse barn pipes

Protect your horse barn pipes

How many of us have experienced broken pipes in the winter. Simple preparations save you time and money.

Use a unit specifically made for the size and shape of the tank in the pasture. An improperly fitting heater rests against tank walls and could melt a hole through the side or bottom of the tank. Check the water level daily to ensure the heater is submerged and working properly.

Basketballs or soccer balls left floating on the water's surface can be enough to keep water from freezing in regions that do not experience hard freezes.

Consider investing in a generator. In the event of a power outage, barns relying on wells will not have water. Depending on the distance between the barn and the next available water supply it could be too far to transport water daily.

Know how to turn off the water supply to the barn. In the event that a pipe bursts, it is important to know how to shut off the main flow of water to avoid flooding.

Tip #5 - Be aware of changing hoof conditions

As dryer conditions develop during fall months, proper hoof hydration is important. A tip: Allow your horse’s water trough to occasionally trickle over, creating a small puddle to allow their feet to become wet. Hoof care should be kept on schedule. Many horse owners prefer to have shoes removed during the fall and winter months, but hooves need routine trimming every six to eight weeks to prevent cracks and breakage.

Winter horse hoof care often presents scheduling challenges. With winter weather bringing hard frozen ground, snow drifts and colder temperatures makes it difficult for horse owners and farriers to stick to schedules. Canceled or postponed hoof trimming and horse shoeing appointments are common.

Winter care for horse's hoofs

Winter care for horse's hoofs

With winter weather bringing hard frozen ground, snow drifts and colder temperatures makes it difficult for horse owners and farriers to stick to schedules, but regular hoof care is important.

Colder months bring muddy hoof problems in certain regions. Mud can loosen horseshoes and also trap moisture in horse hooves, leading to deterioration or infections like thrush. If hooves are not examined and picked regularly serious problems can develop. Stalls should be mucked on a regular basis and clean dry areas should be provided to all horses to save their hooves from the effects of too much moisture.

Horses used throughout winter months generally continue wearing their regular horseshoes. Equines who work outdoors may benefit from cold-weather horseshoes and protective sole pads in many regions.

Snow pads reduce the build-up of snow and ice inside a horse's hoof, while tungsten carbide surfacing on horseshoes can add points or studs to increase traction on slippery surfaces.

Although some farriers may debate this point, many hoof care experts advise horses go barefoot in winter, particularly if the equines are retired, pastured or given the winter months off.

Hoof supplements may help strengthen equine feet in winter. Some farriers recommend the use of feed supplements for stronger hoofs in many cases. Equine hoof supplements may contain biotin, amino acids and other healthy ingredients to strengthen hoofs, but no hoof supplement can substitute for a healthy equine diet.

Horse owners and stable staffers may be reluctant to schedule farrier appointments in inclement weather, but equine hoof health depends upon this practice. Horse hoofs may grow somewhat slower in colder temperatures, but they may chip and crack under such conditions.

Tip #6 - Don't forget preventative dental care

A horse with dental problems may result in expensive veterinarian bills. Regular dental check-ups, floating of teeth, and promotion of good general health will help maximize the pleasure you get from your horse AND reduce your costs of ownership.

Although horses usually don't develop cavities like humans do, problems can occur with pits, chips, splits, breaks, and other conditions that compromise the tooth. Checking to make sure your horse's teeth and mouth are in good order is important going into the colder months when thee feeding of dry hay and grains are important. if dental repairs are necessary, they can prevent tooth loss, fracturing, and cupping problems that affect the horse's ability to chew properly and also prevent problems with bits and bridles during riding and training exercises.


By taking necessary steps to keep horses in the best physical condition possible and making sure they are protected from inclement weather, the changing seasons can be safe and invigorating for both horses and owners.

About the Author

EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.