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How to keep horses warm during winter
Clark MacCallister

All livestock require more energy during the cold winter temperatures to keep warm. Horses, especially, have an amazing ability to survive in the cold. Lucy Ray, University of Georgia Extension Agent from Morgan County, recently shared some of her tips for caring for horses during the winter months.

A horse’s best defense against cold weather comes from the heat naturally produced during digestion. The greatest amount of heat is released when microbes in the digestive tract breakdown high-fiber forage material, such as grass or hay. If you use a grain feed or concentrate during the winter, a high-fiber feed will produce more heat when digested. While grains are relatively low in fiber, oats have a fibrous outer hull that can produce more digestive heat.

The best way to increase your horse’s internal body heat and maintain consistent energy uptake is to increase the amount of high quality hay. The ‘critical temperature’ for horses with a thick winter coat is 30 degrees. For each 10 degree drop in temperature below this threshold, a horse will require an extra two pounds per day of high quality hay.

Take into consideration other factors besides just cold temperatures. A 10-15 mph wind at 32 degrees will require an additional four to eight pounds of hay per day to maintain adequate body heat. A horse with no shelter, combined with windy and wet conditions at this temperature, will require an additional 10-14 pounds of hay per day.   

Water intake is another concern with horses during cold weather. Reduced water consumption may cause colic and impaction when forage intake is increased. An ideal water tank should be maintained at 45-65 degrees and ice should be removed frequently. There are several water heaters available for livestock tanks. A small amount of salt can also be added to a grain ration to increase water uptake in horses.

Horses grow longer winter coats that provide very good insulation. Cold weather causes the hair to stand up, and the air trapped between the hairs acts as an insulator to trap heat. However, in wet conditions the hairs lose their ability to stand up and trap heat.

Blanketing a horse can help keep it warm, especially for clipped horses and those who haven’t produced a thick winter coat. Make sure to use a blanket heavy enough to provide adequate warmth. Because blankets prevent the horse’s hair from naturally standing up, using a blanket that is too light can sometimes be worse than no blanket at all.  As a general rule, use a heavyweight blanket, preferably one with 400 grams of insulation for subzero weather. Dirty blankets can cause sores and skin problems, so always keep the blanket maintained and properly fit.

If your horse is kept in a stall for the winter, make sure the bedding is kept dry and the stalls are cleaned daily. Damp stalls, ammonia buildup, and poor ventilation can cause respiratory issues. In many cases, horses are better kept outside during the winter.

Follow these simple tips to help keep your horses healthy and happy this winter.