Management of horses in the winter

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 31, 2021

By Morgan Watts
Rowan County Cooperative Extension

No matter the time of year, horses always need access to the basic needs; food, water and shelter. During the winter months, those basic needs are critical to maintaining a healthy horse. In the winter, horses need to be provided with the necessary nutrients and environment to maintain their body weight, hydration and overall health.


On average, a horse needs to drink about 5-10 gallons of water each day. The necessity to meet this amount significantly increases during cold weather. In the winter months, water troughs freeze and need to be maintained so that horses and other livestock can drink out of them. To avoid this issue, you can buy a tank heater to prevent the trough from freezing. This also aids in the prevention of horses avoiding water consumption due to the cold water temperature. An old trick to coax livestock, including horses, to drink more water throughout the day is to provide salt blocks free choice or include a small amount of salt in their feed. Horse owners have discovered that warming the drinking water for their horse during the winter will lead to the horse consuming more water.

Grain and forage

All livestock, including horses, need nutrients to maintain their health and body condition. During cold temperatures, these requirements increase. A horse in maintenance should consume 1.5%-2% of their body weight of hay or forage per day. This increases greatly with weather conditions, age and the reproduction stage of your horse. To meet these nutrient requirements, you must provide horses with an adequate amount of good-quality hay. Hay not only provides calories for your horse, but it also increases their internal temperature as the hay is being digested. Hay increases metabolic temperature more than grain, but sometimes supplemental grain is necessary to boost your horse’s calorie intake in the winter. When providing hay to your horse, it is ideal to decrease the amount that will be lost or wasted. To accomplish this, hay must be fed in a rack or hay net. When hay is fed on the ground, it not only increases forage loss but increases intestinal parasites due to its close proximity to the ground and manure. Hay fed on the ground also increases the dustiness of the hay, which could lead to respiratory issues. When storing hay, remember that yield loss is greatest where there are high moisture and low airflow. That being said, store hay out of the weather in a barn, shed or under a tarp, and store hay off the ground, in a hayloft, on pallets or on large-sized gravel. On many occasions, to increase calorie intake and increase body condition, horses need to be fed grain in addition to forage (hay). There are many different types and brands of feed. The feed that is provided needs to be determined on the horse that it is being fed. Younger, older, working and bred horses need to be fed a higher protein and fat content-based feed rather than middle-aged horses that are not being worked or ridden. You may also utilize feed/grain to entice horses to take medications or even drink more water.


When temperatures drop, and the wind picks up, horses need some shelter and wind block. Depending on your pasture location, it can be as simple as trees, a run-in shed, or even a barn. Low temperatures, precipitation and high winds are what will cause your horse to get extremely cold. Turnout blankets can be useful in extreme conditions but need to be taken off when conditions and temperature improve. If your horse sweats in a blanket before temperatures drop, it will cause the horse to get very cold and can cause sickness. Horses that have a good winter coat should not need a blanket unless temperatures are extremely low, precipitation is present, and the wind chill is a factor. Horses that have been clipped for the winter show season will almost always need a blanket if the temperature dips below freezing.


Horses are often shod due to being ridden. In this area, this can cause an issue when snow is on the ground. If a horse is shod during the winter months, it can build up snow between the shoe and the hoof, making it difficult to walk. In this area, the snow is often wet and compacts well, making this issue more of a concern. To address or avoid this issue, it is suggested that horses either be stalled during snow accumulation, hooves picked out twice daily, or shoes be removed. The most common response is shoe removal. This also allows the hoof to breathe and flex naturally for a couple of months before being shod again. Horses with corrective shoeing may not have this option, so the latter will have to be performed. Another issue with the winter months is the accumulation of deep mud. It is important to move your feeding areas to dry areas so that the horse(s) can stand to eat in a dry safe place. Feeding in high mud areas causes hoof issues, scratches and possible infection in horses. Try rotating your feeding areas to allow for mud to dry out before returning to that area.

If you have any questions about feeding your horse during the winter or about your forage quality, contact Morgan Watts at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Rowan County Center at 704-216-8970 or .

— Source Michelle South, Avery County agent in agriculture and livestock

Morgan Watts is livestock agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension.

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