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Community Agriculture Alliance: Maintaining healthy horses in winter

— As winter settles in and brings cold, snowy weather, it is important to remember that the winter climate can have significant effects on your horses. Proper management is required to maintain healthy horses throughout winter.

One of the most common problems with horses in the colder months is colic. As water temperatures begin to drop, horses tend to consume less water. Also, as the temperatures decrease, nutritional requirements will increase. A drop in water intake and an increase in roughage consumption is the ideal recipe for impaction colic. This is common because most horses will consume hay in the winter, which averages only about 10 percent water, compared with grasses consumed in summer averaging 80 percent water. This paired with decreased exercise, which aids in gut motility, significantly can increase the chances of dehydration and digestive system complications. However, a few simple management tools can prevent colic cases and keep your horses healthy.

Decreased water intake by horses will occur before water freezes and at about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, so efforts should be taken to ensure that your horses are continuing to consume as much water as possible. Easy practices include changing water out before it freezes, using automatic waterers, using tank heaters to prevent freezing, and even adding salt or electrolytes to the feed to encourage regular water consumption.



Nature has designed horses to withstand cold from the inside. Horses rely on internal heat to keep them warm in winter, therefore, feeding practices also may need to be adjusted to guarantee your horses maintain an adequate body condition. Most important is to begin with a ration that meets their nutritional requirements. From there, it may be necessary to increase the roughage provided, as the digestion of fiber creates a heat increment internally, which horses use to stay warm. Likewise, if you are not riding your horse in winter, often it is recommended to decrease the concentrate, or grain, provided. Realistically, in even the most extreme weather, a horse’s caloric needs increase only about 10 to 20 percent. The key is to recognize that horses, by nature, are grazing animals and fare best if there is a small amount of food constantly being processed through the digestive system. This allows for a continuous production of heat. One of the most natural ways to keep horses warm in winter is to allow ad libitum access to good-quality hay and fresh water.

Another simple management practice in winter is to ensure that horses have adequate shelter. Cold wind and rain actually can produce a more chilling effect than freezing temperatures and snowfall. Therefore, providing at minimum a windbreak will help keep your horses warm in inclement weather.



Horses are extremely adaptable animals; however, if you follow these easy management practices, you will have a much greater chance at maintaining a healthy horse throughout the winter season. For more information on equine health, call the Routt County Extension Office at 970-879-0825.

Cassidy Kurtz is the Routt County Extension Office’s 4-H agent.


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