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Keeping Horses Warm

Learn how to keep your horses warm during winter with these tips.

By Sharon Biggs Waller


Horse winter
Courtesy Stock.XCHNG
Provide your horse with fiber to help it keep warm during winter.

Any horseperson who has lived in a cold climate knows that on a freezing day, she can warm her hands by pushing them deep inside a horse’s coat. That heat is produced inside the horse’s digestive tract, which is stoked by fermentation. In other words, horses have their own little central heating system.

You can help keep that warmth flowing through your horse by providing the right materials—in this case fiber. When a horse digests long-stem fiber (hay), microbial fermentation occurs and heat is created. This benefits the horse in times of cold weather because fiber is digested slowly and heat is sustained for quite a long time.

It’s difficult to pinpoint a precise amount to feed, but an extra flake of hay on a cold day would be a good idea. Feed a mature horse at least 2.75 to 3 percent of its estimated body weight with dry matter. For example, a 1,000-pound gelding should be fed 27.5 to 30 pounds of dry matter (hay) per day.

But what is really cold to a horse? The thermoneutral zone (TNZ) is the range of environmental temperature at which the animal uses minimal energy to maintain body temperature—it’s the “ideal” temperature for comfort. The TNZ for the horse is lower than for a human. If the outside temperature is in the single digits or lower, the horse will need more fiber to stay warm. If it’s in the 30-degree-F range, then requirements aren’t as great. However, factor in wind and cold rain, too, which will increase energy requirements. Access to shelter also impacts the energy required for a horse to keep warm.

Calories gained from fat and grains won’t produce the same long, sustained heat, and feeding extra grain without slowly acclimating a horse to a ration change can prompt a bout of colic.

It can be challenging to find extra hay in the winter, so a good forage extender is beet pulp. Soak the beet pulp overnight before feeding, because it expands when it soaks up moisture. Put the pulp in a 5-gallon bucket, and pour enough water over it to cover. Wet beet pulp molds quickly, so throw away any leftovers.

To help your horse keep his body temperature up in the winter, make sure his digestion is able to function the best it can. Horses need a readily available source of drinkable water that does not include ice or snow. A horse would not be taking in enough water if you rely on him eating snow.

Although it’s not a huge issue, horses are less likely to drink cold water as tepid water. Most water-tank heaters keep the water a few degrees above freezing, and as long as there isn’t any ice floating in the water, it should be fine. The best way to keep ice away is to use buckets with heating elements built in. These are safer than submersible heating elements, because the heating elements don’t come in contact with the horse. Buckets’ electrical cords can be run through a piece of PVC pipe in the barn or pasture so the horse can’t chew them or play with them. If you have worries about a particular horse getting enough water, you can warm the water to encourage it to drink more.

—Brian Nielsen, PhD, PAS, Diplomate ACAN, professor of equine exercise physiology at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich.

About the Author: Sharon Biggs Waller is an award-winning writer and author of Advanced English Riding (BowTie Press, 2007) and the upcoming The Complete Horse Bible (BowTie Press). She lives on a 10-acre hobby farm in northwest Indiana with her husband, Mark, 75 chickens, two Lamancha goats, two horses, and an assortment of cats and dogs.

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Keeping Horses Warm

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Reader Comments
We live in North central Pennsylvania, right on the PA/NY state line and its cold right now....3 degrees out and the wind chill tonight is minus 15. We have always fed our 5 horses in the winter time in a "Free feeding style" figuring they are the better judge of how much hay they need just for this very reason. They are NOT overweight or underweight and always winter very well. The standard bred we adopted in 2002 from the HHRYA has even become an "easy keeper" which is rare for his breed. The others we had adopted we were never able to get any weight on. One having EPM and after a year of treatment with Rebalance and him taking a turn for the worse we had to put him down and the other girl put her leg thru the side of the new barn of which was a steel and aluminum building shredding the tendons, and everything that would have required her leg to function for even her to walk. We had to put her down that day sadly as there was nothing for the surgical vet to repair from her hoof to above her knee. But prior to losing them.. Prim, the One lost to EPM was at a 1 on the Henneke Scale at the point of adoption and weighed 575 lbs. We did get him up to 700 lbs but never really over that. Community Property was a 2 on the Henneke Scale and she never gained any weight for us. We never had trouble getting weight on ANY OTHER horse{s} so we felt good when Lou Gehrig went from a score of 3 up to a 5 after his second year with us. He looks like a quarter horse and not even a standard breed any longer. Anyways...Just wanted to share my story....that I think FREE FEEDING in the colder winter months is best for the health and happiness of my horses....and likely yours too. We DO HAY our own family property {28 acres} and are able to get additional hay needed at "cost" {Gas and twine for the tractor} so it might be less of an expense. Happy Rescue....and Thank you for ALL YOU DO FOR THE HORSES THAT NEED YOU> YOU ARE AMAZING PEOPLE!!! Another Rescuer...Terry Wells
Kids and Critters {Horses, Dogs from Kill shelters}
Terry, Elkland, PA
Posted: 1/25/2013 12:56:28 AM
We are in northwest Florida and only have a donkey, but this is good information. We do get temps below freezing and sometimes we have to break the ice, but most days, water in direct sunlight will thaw. My biggest worry is rain. We are currently building a new shelter.
Kevin, DeFuniak Springs, FL
Posted: 1/6/2011 11:52:27 AM
We always check the weather/temperature in the winter months for consideration of a freeze. When the temp is going to be consistentlty cold all day or for a few days, we will get alfalfa hay to allow for the ingestion of a better source of internal generation of body heat.
Kathy, Wichita Falls, TX
Posted: 1/6/2011 7:14:04 AM
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