Caring for your horse in Winter

24 February 2021

Winter is a challenging time of year if you own a horse, with plenty of things to think about if you want to ensure they’re safe and comfortable. And, if you’re new to equestrianism, these months can give you even more to think about as you get to grips with stable management.

To help you out, we’ve put together this beginner’s guide to caring for your horse in winter, where you can find advice on topics like stabling your horse, feeding, rugging, and common health issues.

We’ll cover:

Do horses get cold in the winter?

Horses tend to get cold at temperatures below freezing (0°C) but should be fine at higher temperatures. This is because horses are warm-blooded mammals, just like us, so they do get cold when exposed to temperatures outside of their thermoneutral zone (the range where a body can naturally maintain its ideal core temperature). However, their range is much wider than that of humans, so they can withstand more extreme lows. A horse’s thermoneutral zone is 0–25⁰C, whereas our zone falls between 21–30⁰C. This is something that they have evolved to have, as they’re naturally an outdoor mammal.

That being said, it’s important to remember that horses can still get cold, especially in the UK winter when temperatures can regularly drop below 0⁰C. Thankfully, there are a number of things you can do to make them more comfortable during these months, including stabling them or providing a shelter in their pasture, giving them a rug, and ensuring they have food to generate body heat.

Do you need to keep your horse stabled in winter?

horse in a stable

While there is no definite answer to whether you need to stable your horse during winter, you need to carefully think about all aspects of your horse’s welfare, as well as the implications your decision will have on their routine.

As a horse owner, it’s only natural to be worried that your horse will be too cold if they’re outside in the winter. However, it’s important to remember that they are well suited to living outdoors year-round provided they have ample food to generate body heat, plenty of water, and some shelter for more extreme weather — they’re much hardier animals than many people realise. They will even grow a thicker winter coat in preparation for the cold months, and, if you choose to clip this off for working purposes, you can give them a rug for extra warmth.

However, there are reasons why you may want to put your horse in a stable for the winter. For example, if you keep your horse clipped throughout the year, you may wish to give them the extra protection that stabling offers, especially at night. The same might be true for an older horse or one that has recently experienced ill health, both of which may need more sheltering. There are also some practical reasons you may choose stabling, such as if there is a danger of them poaching your field in wet weather, making it harder to achieve healthy grass growth in spring (though this can be avoided with careful pasture management).

Below, we’ve summarised some of the considerations you need to make for stabling and turning out your horse in the winter months that should help you make a decision.

What to consider before stabling your horse during the winter

  • Your horse’s health and age: How is their health? Are they an older horse? Do they need the additional warmth and protection from the elements that stabling will provide?
  • The stabling arrangement: Would they need to be stabled all the time or could they be turned out during the day and stabled at night? The latter can be a compromise that allows your horse to experience the benefits of both arrangements, so it may be worth considering.
  • Your horse’s temperament: What is their temperament? How would they deal with being restricted to the stable for most of the day? Some horses can become restless or depressed when they are inside for long periods or subjected to a routine change.
  • Feeding options: If your pasture does not produce good-quality grass for feeding or it’s prone to waterlogging in winter, and you can’t solve the issue by putting extra hay in the field, you may wish to consider stabling your horse where they’ll get easy access to feed.
  • Level of work: Will you be working your horse over the winter? If so, will this be frequent enough to make sure your horse gets plenty of exercise? Should you not be planning to work your horse, you’ll still need to make sure they have access to a paddock or will be turned out during the day for exercise.
  • Your time investment: Keeping a horse stabled is a time-consuming investment if you’re taking care of them yourself, as you will need to visit in the morning to feed, rug, and turn them out, and then return in the evening to bring them in, re-rug them, and feed them again. You will also have to regularly muck out the stable. Do you have time to do this?
  • Monitoring your horse: Do you have the time to carefully monitor a stabled horse? Because stabling is a big change to their natural routine, horses living indoors for long stretches need to be closely monitored to ensure they are getting enough exercise and feeding well, as well as checking in on how they are handling the switch. You will need to regularly assess their body condition, weight, and behaviour.
  • Costs of stabling: Stabling can be more expensive than turning your horse out, as you’ll need to provide all their food and bedding, as well as stable fees (if applicable). Does your budget cover the extra costs that may be incurred?

What to consider before turning your horse out during the winter

  • Your horse’s temperament: Does your horse prefer to be outdoors rather than inside? Are they likely to get restless if they don’t have space to roam around? Then it may be worth turning them out for the winter.
  • Your horse’s clip: Do you keep your horse clipped through the year? Then you may wish to let their winter coat grow if you plan on keeping them turned out. Alternatively, you can ensure they are well rugged to keep them insulated in those cold temperatures.
  • The condition of the field: What is usually the condition of the field you plan to keep your horse in through the winter? Most grass grows poorly at this time of the year, so you’ll likely need to provide hay. Are there any particularly muddy sections? If so, you will need to stay on top of your leg care to ensure they are clean, reducing the risk of mud fever.
  • Providing shelter: Even when you’ve decided to turn your horse out for the winter, you need to ensure that their field has cover so they can shelter there during the worst weather. A three-sided construct will work very well, though you need to make sure it is large enough for all the horses in the field to rest there comfortably.
  • Level of work: When turned out, you will find that your horse exercises themselves in the field each day, which means you will probably not need to work them as hard as when they are stabled.
  • Your horse’s feed: As they will be turned out in colder temperatures, your horse may need to have their feed adjusted for more calories or nutrients, as they will be working harder to stay warm while being active. You should closely monitor their weight and condition to make sure they are staying healthy.
  • Your time investment: Because there is no need for mucking out, filling hay nets, or bringing your horse in and out, keeping them outdoors is certainly less of a time investment than if you are stabling them yourself. But, you will need to visit them twice a day to rug them and put out feed, as well as grooming them to ensure they’re cared for. In particularly cold conditions, you will need to go out and ensure their water has not frozen over. If your horse shares a field with others, you may be able to work out a routine to share the workload.
  • Costs of turning out: While the cost of a horse living out in winter will be cheaper than keeping one stabled, there will still be fees and supplies to cover, such as field rental (unless you own your own), extra hay, and additional rugging.

What type of rugging does your horse need in winter?

horse rug

Whether you plan to stable or turn your horse out through the winter, providing them with the right level of rugging is absolutely essential. A rug will, first and foremostly, ensure your horse is warm at a time of year when temperatures drop, but it also has other benefits like keeping them dry, clean, and presentable. They also play a vital role in providing further protection for older horses, horses in poor health, and horses who are clipped through the winter.

Winter rugging for a turned-out horse

If you are going to turn your horse out for the winter, rugging becomes even more important as they will be exposed to the elements. Turnout rugs are designed exactly for this purpose, providing a high level of insulation and a waterproof outer. They are available in a variety of weights and can be used with a liner and neck cover for those colder days.

It’s important to note that you will probably need more than one turnout rug for your horse as the temperature changes. Different weights are designed for different levels of cold, which means you can’t invest in one heavyweight rug and then use it in mild weather, as your horse will overheat (and vice versa for lightweight rugs in cold conditions). And, if they will be spending time indoors, you will need to pick up an appropriate stable rug for them, as their turnout rug will be too much. We have a horse rug temperature guide that will help you to choose the right level of cover for your horse, which also offers recommendations for horses that are clipped/unclipped.

Winter rugging for a stabled horse

Should you plan to stable your horse for the winter season, they will obviously have access to a greater degree of shelter and warmth than if they were turned out. Therefore, they do not need the same level of rugging, though they still need some. As your horse can’t move around a lot, and stables are well ventilated, they will need a stable rug, which are padded or quilted but don’t have a waterproof outer layer. They’re also breathable to allow your horse to safely sweat without catching a chill.

Like turnout rugs, stable rugs are available in a variety of weights to suit the temperature — you will probably need a lighter day rug and a heavier night rug for a fully stabled horse. Again, you can use our horse rug temperature guide that will help you to choose the right weights for your horse.

Further winter rugging advice

While choosing the appropriate rugging for your horse is very important, there are a few more tips to bear in mind to ensure they are comfortable through the winter:

  • Pay attention to your horse’s clip: If your horse is clipped, you will need to consider what type of clip they have, as the more extreme cuts will leave them more exposed to the cold. This means that they will likely need additional rugging to keep them warm.
  • Watch out for moisture and dirt: You should only ever put a turnout or stable rug on a dry, clean horse. If there is any moisture trapped underneath, they could catch a chill — sweat from exercise or dampness from bathing, grooming, or rainfall should be allowed to dry first. Any dirt or mud should be removed too, as it can cause uncomfortable rubbing on the skin.
  • Apply a cooler or fleece rug after work: If you are working your horse during winter, you should apply a cooler or fleece rug afterwards as they are breathable and moisture-wicking. This means they can prevent your horse from catching a chill in the cold weather while also not trapping the moisture into their coat.
  • Check your horse’s blanket regularly: Whether your horse is turned out or stabled, it’s vital that you ensure their blanket is still in place whenever you check in on them. This will ensure they do not go for long periods of time with areas of their body exposed to the cold.

Should you groom your horse in winter?

You need to groom your horse all year round as it plays a big part in keeping them happy, healthy, and clean. As we’ve mentioned, one thing to watch out for in the wintertime is that your horse does not spend too much time with a damp coat in the colder air — like after grooming or bathing. You can remedy this by using a rug that is breathable and moisture-wicking to help them dry out.

Mud management

One big concern in winter is the increased amount of mud that your horse will be exposed to — this is especially true if they’re turned out in a boggy field. A build-up of mud on your horse’s legs and body can be a breeding ground for fungal and bacterial infections, so it’s very important you clean them up as soon as you spot they’ve gotten dirty. If you think your horse has been infected, they need to be removed from the field then treated and cleaned regularly — it may also be worth seeking the advice of a vet if you’re concerned.

As a horse owner, you can take some preventative measures to reduce the amount of mud your horse has contact with. For instance, if one part of your field has better drainage or doesn’t tend to get as boggy, you could cordon of a smaller paddock area for your horse to ensure they don’t stray into the other areas. Additionally, you can place gravel, wood chips, or boarding in high-traffic areas, like feeding troughs, gates, and water sources, to try to alleviate the mud build-up. If it’s possible, you can also rotate feeding and watering areas to prevent the ground becoming churned up.

Snow and ice management

Another issue that needs close monitoring is the effect of snow and ice on your horse’s hoofs, as a build-up can cause injury. This is a key part of horse hoof care in winter. Not only can compacted snow or ice cause lacerations, but they will force your horse to place more weight on the back of the hoof, putting stress on muscles and ligaments.

When there are snowy and icy conditions, you need to check each hoof on a regular basis the same way you would as part of your grooming regime — you may need to do this twice daily if conditions are bad. Look for any snow or ice that has become lodged in the hoof and remove it while also checking for lacerations or cracks it may have caused.

There are some things you can do to minimise this issue. Depending on whether you choose to shoe your horse, you can speak to your farrier about adding ice caulks and snow pads. You can also apply petroleum jelly or cooking spray to the bottom of the hoof to provide short-term prevention of any snow or ice build-up.

Snow and ice can also be hazardous when your horse is walking over it, as they could slip over and cause themselves injury. Therefore, it’s best to be proactive and identify any areas of your stable, paddock, or field that tend to freeze over, then putting some sand or grit down and breaking up any frozen surfaces. You may wish to fence off large areas that are prone to freezing.

What should you feed horses in winter?

horse feeding

In winter, most horses do not require a major change of feeding regime, though adjustments might be required depending on your approach to the season. It’s important to understand that they need plenty of fibre in their diet during the colder months, as this is what their digestive system processes to provide body heat. This means that roughage, like grass and hay, still needs to form the basis of your horse’s diet in winter — usually this is 2% of their body weight, but this can go up to 2.5 or 3% in extreme conditions, when more warmth is required.

You may also need to bear in mind whether your horse is good doer or a hard doer when making this adjustment. A good doer, who puts on weight easily, could be put on low-nutrient roughage (mature and dry, but free of mould and dust) so that they can boost their fibre intake without consuming a lot of extra calories. On the other hand, a hard doer, who finds it hard to put on weight, can be given nutrient-rich hay (immature and tender) to make sure they get extra calories in the winter.

Feeding a stabled horse in winter

One of the reasons that owners choose to stable horses in winter is that the grass in their field grows poorly in winter, which reduces one of their horse’s main sources of forage. If you choose to stable your horse, you will need to make sure that they have access to the right amount of roughage during the day so that they can trickle feed (they usually do this for 16–18 hours).

A common way of doing this is by providing hay nets through the day that can be hung up, which are designed to allow slow feeding rather than bolting. Some riders choose to feed ad-lib hay (essentially unlimited) to make sure their horses have access to roughage through the evening, as they naturally would in the field, because it is thought to help prevent behavioural problems and boredom. If you choose this approach, you should monitor your horse to ensure they don’t gorge themselves, and you may wish to give them lower-calorie hay or reduce their hard feeds.

Another key point to consider for a stabled horse is how to manage the switch from summer grazing in the field to more restricted indoor feeding. This change in routine can represent a major change in your horse’s diet and exercise, so it’s best to introduce them to it gradually over 10–14 days, which will reduce any risk of colic. Begin by bringing your horse in for just a few hours to feed, then slowly increase this time each day. This will ensure any sudden changes are avoided.

Feeding a turned-out horse in winter

For a horse that will be spending the winter being turned out, whether it’s just during the day or all the time, you will need to first assess the quality of the forage options in your field. If grass grows poorly or not at all during the colder months, you should ensure that there is an adequate amount of hay for your horse to trickle feed throughout the day and into the evening.

You can usually just put hay out in piles and your horse will come to it as and when they want to eat. If there are other horses in a shared field, you may be able to organise with the other owners so that you buy larger quantities of hay together to save money, as well as creating a rota for putting it out in the field to save time. However, in a scenario where there are a few horses in a field, you will need to make sure that there are more than enough piles for sharing.

Watering horses in winter

While keeping your horse well hydrated is always essential, it becomes even more important during winter, because they face increased risk of impaction colic. This is an issue where feed is blocked in the large colon, brought about by a lack of water in the system and the eating of more dry hay. Horses tend to drink less in the winter as the water tends to be a lot colder, and don’t get extra moisture from succulent grasses in this season.

For both turned-out and stabled horses, there should be no drastic changes to their watering regime. However, the main problem you will face in winter is the water becoming too cold to drink or even freezing over. When temperatures drop, you will need to check that any sources are not freezing at least twice a day and break up and remove any ice that may prevent your horse from drinking — this is important for those out in the field and exposed to the elements.

There are a few measures you can take to reduce the chance of freezing. Start by filling your bucket or trough with warm water to make it more palatable for your horse and less likely to get too cold. You can supplement this with a thermal wrap that will help to insulate the liquid. You can also invest in an electric trough or bucket warmer that will actually apply heat through the night.

If you have the choice, use your biggest water trough for the winter and always fill it to the brim as it takes longer for large volumes to freeze over. You could also try partially covering a trough’s surface with plywood or polystyrene, but leaving space for your horse to drink, which should help to insulate it. Should you have wish to, you can also partially bury a trough in the ground to add insulation.

What are some winter health problems to look out for?

horses in winter

While you’ll take the best of care of your horse through winter, it’s worth knowing about some of the winter health problems that could affect them at this time of the year. That way, you’ll be able to identify them early and seek treatment. Here are some of the most common issues that your horse could experience.

Please note: If you’re worried your horse has any of these conditions, please seek advice from a vet or equestrian professional to find a suitable treatment.

Mud fever

Mud fever, also known as scratches or pastern dermatitis, is a non-contagious bacterial infection of a horse’s skin around the lower leg. The bacteria thrive in damp and muddy conditions, which makes it a particularly common issue in the winter.

Signs of mud fever to look out for include: areas of scabbed and lesioned skin, thick discharge, heat, swelling, and eventually hair loss. Reducing your horse’s contact with mud and cleaning it off quickly is the best way to avoid this condition.

Rain scald

Rain scald is a non-contagious condition caused by the same bacteria as mud fever, but scabs and lesions form on the neck, back, and rear. It occurs when a horse is consistently exposed to rain and damp conditions, which are commonplace in winter.

The scabs and lesions will form on a horse’s back and have tufts of hair attached to them. Before you treat rain scald, it’s best to check it isn’t ringworm, which is actually highly contagious. You can prevent rain scald by providing ample shelter (in the field) or stabling them and rugging them in a waterproof turnout rug.

Winter laminitis

Laminitis is a serious condition that can occur at any time of the year, including the winter. In the cold, the issue is most prevalent in horses with previous laminitis problems, insulin resistance, or equine metabolic syndrome, but it’s not exclusive. It can strike with no change in diet or routine, and is linked to how the circulatory system in the legs finds it hard to adapt to the cold, causing a reduced blood supply and, consequently, severe pain.

Additionally, in winter it can be harder to spot a horse that’s having trouble with its feet if there are difficult icy and snowy conditions that may mask the warning signs. Therefore, if your horse is having trouble, you should always check their feet in normal conditions to see if the pain remains.

Impaction colic

Impaction colic occurs when a horse eats a lot of dry feed and does not take in enough liquid. The result is a blockage of foodstuffs in the narrow parts of the large colon. It can be more common in the winter as horses eat more roughage to generate body heat and drink less water as it freezes and becomes less palatable. Ensuring your horse eats quality roughage that isn’t too dry and carefully monitoring their hydration can help to prevent this condition.

If your horse begins to suffer from impaction colic, you may notice that their appetite is reduced and they aren’t producing as much manure (when they do it will be dry/hard). They may also seem agitated: pawing at the ground, staring at their flanks, and rolling on the ground are commonplace. Should you suspect that your horse has an issue, seek immediate advice from a vet.

Lethargic horse

Horses, on the whole, become a little more lethargic and often less willing to exercise in the colder months of the year due to the downregulation of their thyroid hormones. As such, it’s natural if your horse seems a little less enthusiastic in the winter, so they may just need some extra time to warm up, start exercising, and warm down than usual.

However, if your horse seems overly listless, then they could be depressed, or it may be a sign of another underlying problem. Being more restricted in winter can be difficult for a horse that is used to being turned out and free to roam in the spring and summer, so it may be a case of increasing the time they spend outside or exercising. Should they remain lethargic, it’s best to speak to a vet.

Coughing

If your horse is coughing in winter, it could be a viral or bacterial infection, which are at their worst at this time of the year. You’ll need to make a note of when the coughing is most prevalent (e.g. while feeding or exercising) and consult your vet for diagnosis and treatment.

Should the coughing take place exclusively when your horse is in their stable, then it’s very likely that they are allergic to dust and spores, a condition known as equine asthma. There are a few things you can do to make their lives easier: consider turning them out full-time; maintaining clean, urine-free bedding; ensuring there is air flow through the stable (beyond just opening the door); dampening their hay or haylage; and using a dust-free bedding (like dust-free shavings or paper).

Shedding winter coat early

Horses shed their winter coat in accordance with photoperiods, which means that as the hours of daylight get longer in the year, they will begin to lose their thick fur ahead of the spring and summer. Each horse has its own shedding pattern that it will typically stick to annually, so they should begin to lose their winter coat at around the same time.

However, if a horse sheds at a time that’s unusual for them, whether that’s early or late, it could be a sign of an underlying issue. One of these is Cushing’s disease, a progressive condition more common in older horses that can lead to a number of symptoms that reduce their quality of life. These include laminitis, lethargy, and reoccurring infections. As shedding issues can be a sign of something serious, it’s best to get advice from your vet.

Winter is often the most challenging time of the year for horses and their riders, with plenty to think about to ensure health and safety. However, by following our advice on stabling or turning out, rugging, grooming, and feeding, as well as knowing what winter health issues to look out for, you should be able to ensure your horse is well cared for. You can also follow our guide to getting your horse back into work if you haven’t ridden over the winter months.

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