Getting Horses Ready For Winter

By Deb Haines

Proper horse care and management during the winter is essential. As it becomes colder, the horses requirements for energy, shelter and hoof care begin to change. This HVC file explains the different requirements horses have during the winter and practices horse owners can do to meet those requirements.

Your horse needs more water in the winter

The goal should always be to maximize the amount your horse drinks to help prevent dehydration and colic. Most 1,000-pound adult horses need at least 10 to 12 gallons of water daily.

If your horse doesn’t drink enough water during cold weather they may eat less and be more prone to impaction colic. Even if you offer quality feed, horses will consume less if not drinking enough water. If horses eat less feed, they might not have enough energy to tolerate the cold.

Water intake maintains a horse’s fecal moisture level. If fecal material becomes too dry, intestinal blockage or impaction may occur. A horse won’t develop an impaction in one day, but can over several days to several weeks of poor water intake.

  • Keep in mind that a horse requiring special care during summer months will need that care continued throughout the winter months.
  • To ease the transition into winter, deworm your horses based on fecal analysis and make sure they are in good body condition.

Quick facts

  • Provide warm water (45° to 65° F).
  • Feed additional hay during extreme cold.
  • Make sure there is access to shelter.
  • Perform regular hoof care.
  • Assess your horse’s body condition regularly.
  • Evaluate your facility’s stability and ventilation.

Blanket Question And Answers With Our HVC Veterinarians

Do I Or Don’t I Blanket???

1) If you blanket, does it cause the exposed extremities to get more cold because circulation changes, or some other reason.

Dr. Pamela Hiltunen-Hall ………………….. Think about an insulated vest for people. It keeps their core warm and that’s a good thing in winter. If a horse has on a warm blanket, that’s thick enough to compensate for the insulation lost by the animal’s haircoat being flattened then overall it’s helpful in cold weather.

2) Is it accurate that putting a no fill turnout sheet on a horse in winter keeps him windproof & dry but actually lessens his ability to stay warm as the sheet has compressed his hair underneath smooth & flat?

Dr. Fernanda Camargo…. I have personally never read any scientific research paper that affirms this is the case. I know I prefer to wear at least a t-shirt on windy and rainy cold days than being naked. When they are shivering, they are not comfortable. And an uncomfortable horse will not eat well or drink well.

3) My worry about blankets is the temps and what to do with a blanketed horse when the temps rise and fall. So for instance if I know a blizzard is coming and I blanket my horses, then when should I take the blanket off and not adversely affect them? I have an old guy that I blanket he is 34 and he has a stall and run and it has been below freezing this week and stayed there, so around 15 to 19 at night and not above 32 during the day, my other horses are younger and at a good weight but if it turns cold or stormy I would like to blanket I just worry about when to take them off.

Dr. Fernanda Camargo ….I would take it off, if it’s a medium weight, at 40 degrees. If it’s a heavy weight, I would change to medium at about 30, and off at 40. It’s a lot of work. But older horses have a harder time regulating their temperature. 40 degrees is a good cut off. If left blanketed they may sweat and expend energy by being too hot.

4) Talking about normal horses… Some say should never need to blanket, some say blanket, but the science seems… Unfixed. I have read “studies say” never blanket, blanket starting at 45f, 30f, and even as low as 18f.

Dr. Connie Schmidt… In average circumstances, horses that have a little wind break and shelter have no need for blanketing.. IF you live in the arctic circle, that may not work. I live in western Oregon. My pasture horses seek shelter and are happy without blanketing.

Dr. Samatha Dzierzak….. Depends a lot on the horse. When I was in Wisconsin, there would be horses that did fine without blankets in the same paddock as ones that needed mid to heavy weights because they would shiver or drop weight in winter.

Dr. Cal Jane …….. I need a “real ” reason to blanket and just because it is now the new norm does not make it sensible to blanket. Blankets are not a substitute for shelter.
Whether to blanket a horse depends on the animal, the climate, and how the horse is being used. Concerning your Minis, they are smaller than a regular horse. Smaller creatures have more body surface when compared to weight, so a smaller animal cools off faster. This has nothing to do with their haircoat, rather it is simply due to more skin surface. Consider how fast a small child will lose body heat compared to a big man.
I have lived in North Dakota, SanFrancisco, and the Western side of Oregon. Each area has its challenges that need to be taken into consideration. I found in North Dakota that my stalled horses did very well without a blanket even when it ran into -20F (the barn stayed between 10-30F). To leave an animal outside even with a blanket on tempted the fate of the animal getting frozen ears which resulted in shortened ears apparent in some horses (and a great many cats) around the region. In California the issue was excessive sweating while being exercised during the winter; so I went to body clipping the horse’s head, neck and chest, coupled with using a blanket. In Oregon the winter rains will wet the horse’s haircoat down totally voiding any insulative capacity of the normal winter haircoat, thus the wet soggy horse is relying on the thickness of its skin, underlying SQ fat layer, and its body heat to stay warm. Plus a wet haircoat leads to skin bacterial and fungal infections. Thus I opted for stalling my horses at least 12 out of every 24 hrs, so I could dry out and fluff up their haircoats daily with grooming.

Dr. Teresa Crocker…… Everyone has there own opinions, but I have no problem blanketing horses when conditions are severe. Sometimes the best way to address a hard keeper in the wintertime is just add a blanket. If you are riding during the winter certainly keeping the hair coat slick and easy to groom and keep dry is an important thing. Blankets do compress the hair interrupting the natural Mechanisms of heat retention, but modern blankets account for this using loose fill and breathable nylon. Much different from the rugs of my youth. I do object to blankets that are left on for extended periods of time, are allowed to be worn while heavily soiled, ill-fitting, or are missing straps

Dr. Rachel Lindberg….. I think the most important thing is to be consistent. The average healthy adjusted horse does not need a blanket if it has shelter from the wind and precipitation, unless weather conditions are severe. Nothing wrong with blanketing if you want to, but once you start blanketing you need to keep doing so. Older horses, really young horses, horses that have recently moved from a warmer climate and skinny horses may need a blanket even if they have a good winter coat. You also have to be able to remove them or change blanket weight as the weather changes – they should not be sweating under the blanket. Also make sure to check the hair/skin under the blanket daily as it is easy to miss things if always covered up.

5) When is it considered safe to “put up” your horse after a work out, especially with winter and furry coats? Do they have to be completely dry of sweat and not warm or what is safe and what isn’t?

Dr. Martina Neidhart…….. Cooling off 20min is fine. But than put on a sweat rug to help him dry under it. Or a normal blanket with a generous amount of straw under it to help it dry.
After about 1hr most of the horses are dry and can get their normal rugs, or be without.
Cold temperatures are not such a problem for horses if rugged property, or if they have a thick winter coat. But wet is what gets to them.
Once your horse is dry you don’t have to worry.
if you get a good sweat rug that transports the moisture out and let’s the horses dry from inside out, they are brilliant. But they need to be changed, once the horse is dry under them, as the rugs themselves will be wet.
Yes, a good cooler helps to dry them off. Just don’t use any that is not transporting the moisture out, as those will prevent the horses from drying properly. If you just have one like that, pack it with straw under it and let the straw do the drying job and the blanket keeps the straw in place. But also this blanket/straw layer needs to be replaced by a dry one.

Dr. Madison Seamans …… You might want to look at an article written by Harold Schott DVM published in DVM 360. “Challenges of endurance exercise: Hydration and electrolyte balance” (Proceedings CVM August 2009) It was a real eye opener for me. Our “conventional wisdome” about some things is basically mythology, but strongly held because that’s the way grampa did it, or Dr Jones, or…fill in the blank. I have been victim to this for a long time, but slowly, I am recovering. Thanks to some good hard science, it appears that, in fact, MOST of what we tought about water and electrolytes in horses was WRONG. So now, I never suggest blanketing a sweaty horse. When you come in from hauling hay in the summer, do you feel like putting on a light jacket and walking around?Good luck, ride with purpose.

6) I recently got a horse that is under weight. I was advised to blanket him thru the winter. I live in Ohio, right now temperatures are up and down along with rain in the forecast as well. When should I blanket or sheet him? How does this work?

Dr. Karie Vander Werf …. Is he well coated? Blanketing is a bit of a controversy but in this case, I would consider it. As long as the horse does not get too warm underneath (sweating) as this can lead to even more issues. Some will use 40 as a temp guide – some 50 – depending on how thin and how coated the horse is. Blanketing requires frequent checking especially when the weather is changing during the day. The same blanket may be too warm later in the day. Shivering is a good sign to know you need to blanket. Hopefully once he gets his weight up, it will be less of a concern.

Dr. Cal Jane ….. During cold winters especially with winds or a wet coat horses will require more calories to keep themselves warm. If he is already thin then he may not be able to stay warm on his own. Even if not shivering he may be using too many calories and will get even thinner. So you need to consider where you are keeping at.

More reading on Blankets….

Does my horse need a blanket this winter?

In a nutshell, probably not. Horses’ bodies are pretty well-equipped to handle even frigid temperatures. You’ll notice that as the days start to get shorter and nights cooler—usually around September—their coats begin to change and grow ….read more….

How to Fit A Blanket Video …..




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