Winter Horse Management

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Modified from original article written by Michelle South, Avery County Agricultural Agent

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 10-12 gallons of water each day. The necessity to meet this amount significantly increases during cold weather. In the winter months, water troughs often freeze and need extra maintenance and attention. To avoid this issue, you can buy a tank heater to prevent the trough from freezing. This also encourages and often increases water consumption due to the cold water temperature. An old trick to coax livestock and 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. Another option is to add warm water to their grain, making the feed soupy when being fed.


All livestock, including horses, need nutrients to maintain their health, energy, 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 life stage of your horse, such as growth, maintenance, or reproduction. To meet these nutrient requirements, we must provide horses with an adequate amount of good quality hay. Hay not only provides calories, but it also increases their internal temperature as the hay is being digested. Hay increases metabolic temperature more than grain, but often supplemental grain is necessary to boost your horse’s calorie intake in the winter. When providing hay, it is ideal to decrease the amount that will be lost or wasted. To accomplish this, hay can be fed in a rack or hay net. When hay is fed on the ground, it not only increases forage loss but could increase intestinal parasites due to its close proximity to the ground and manure. Hay fed on the ground can also increase dustiness, which could lead to respiratory issues. When storing hay, remember that yield loss is greatest where there is high moisture and low airflow. That being said, store hay out of the weather in a barn or shed, 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 grain to entice horses to take medications or even drink more water. As mentioned before, providing warm water in grain can increase the horse’s water intake during cold weather.


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 a barn. Low temperatures, precipitation, and high winds are what will cause your horse to get extremely cold. Waterproof 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.

If you have horses, hopefully these management tips provide options that are useful for your operation. For more information, contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Sampson County Center at 910-592-7161 or visit our website.