Winter Horse Health

Keep your horse happy and healthy this winter so he’s ready to go when better horseback-riding weather hits.

From AQHA Corporate Partner Nutrena

Winter conditions, particularly in locations farther north, can definitely take a toll on horses. Bitter cold temperatures and biting winds, combined with the dampness of snow, sleet and rain, can all cause a horse to require more energy than normal to maintain his body condition.

Unfortunately, it’s also a time when horse owners miss the early signs that the cold is causing problems. A horse’s body condition can be disguised by a fluffy winter coat, and perhaps a warm blanket, not

to mention the fact that owners are probably heading out to the barn a little less often to ride.

What to do? First, establish a benchmark score of your horse’s body condition. Get an accurate weight and body condition score, and write them down. Then examine your horse monthly - or even weekly - during the winter to catch signs of trouble. Consider keeping this going over the life of the horse, too!

Have a new addition to your horse herd? Make sure you select properly fitting tack for him. AQHA’s "Tack Talk" DVD featuring Dennis Moreland teaches everything from saddling and hackamore fitting to proper trailering.

Second, review your winter feeding. Many owners think adding corn to winter diets is a fine way to provide horses with extra warmth. This is a common winter practice with many farms, and it does increase the horse’s caloric intake with falling temperatures. But there is a much better alternative to corn: forage. It’s more efficient and effective to increase the forage portion of a horse’s diet to help create internal heat in the winter. This is due to the fermentation process the forage goes through in the hindgut, and the heat that process gives off.

The term “critical temperature” is used to determine at what temperature a horse’s nutritional requirements change to maintain normal body temperature. Many people use the temperature of 40 degrees F as a benchmark for calculating winter diets. In essence, for every one degree below critical temperature, increase the horse’s caloric intake by 1 percent. So, if a 1,000 pound horse were receiving 18.6 Mcal (18,600 calories per day), you should increase his diet by 1,860 calories when the temperature goes to 30 degrees (10 times 186). If your hay has tested at 1 Mcal (1,000 calories) per pound, an additional two pounds of hay will help the horse maintain his body condition at that temperature.

Also, don’t underestimate the importance of feeding a well-fortified concentrate during the winter months. The lack of fresh pasture, limited sunlight hours and often-diminished hay quality require it.

Enhance the experience of riding your American Quarter Horse by assuring your tack fits properly. AQHA’s "Tack Talk" DVD offers advice on fitting tack, grooming and even trailering your horse.

Make sure your horse feed provides adequate levels of vitamin A, D and E. Feeds offering probiotics and prebiotics, as well as biotin, are also encouraged. If you are feeding a grass hay or alfalfa hay, make sure your calcium and phosphorus levels are also balanced accordingly in your feed. Remember to select the proper feed for your horse’s life stage and activity level, too. If this involves a change in product, change over to the new product gradually over a period of 5 to 7 days to avoid digestive upset. Also feed the selected product according to the directions on the tag, so your horse receives the full benefit of the nutritional package.

Water consumption is, of course, imperative during winter months. Make sure that the buckets are free from ice and frozen debris. In the winter, horses will consume 10 to 12 gallons of water per day.

Ideally, the water temperature should be at 50 to 65 degrees F to encourage drinking.
Following these steps should help keep your horses healthy and happier (and warmer) during the winter months - and ready to ride come spring.

For more information on horse feed, feeding tips, digestive health and equine management, visit