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by Kim and Kari Baker


Mirror KB Equine Article Series

Take the Nip out of Winter
Article and Photos by Kim and Kari Baker

     Horse owners in the southern sun belt consider winter to be the comfortable time of year while those in the north must endure numb fingers and frostbitten toes.

     Unlike we humans, the horse, when left to itís natural defenses, is inherently prepared to withstand most anything that Old Man Winter can dish out. With this in mind, horse owners should avoid measuring their equine friendís winter comfort level by comparing it to their own. In fact, heat tends to stress horses much more severely than cold conditions. Still, there are a few things you can do to make sure your horse remains comfortable and healthy during the frigid months of the year.

Replacing Burned Calories

     As winter temperatures plummet, your horseís internal furnace will begin to burn valuable calories in order to keep warm. This means that for every 10 degree drop in temperature, below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, youíll need to feed about 10 to 20 percent more feed per day.

     Good quality hay, rather than grain, is more efficient in generating body heat in your horse. Since grain is digested in the small intestines it is easier for the horseís system to break down and thus produces very little lasting heat. Due to itís fibrous structure, hay is digested in the cecum by bacterial fermentation. Therefore it is known as a long burning fuel, providing lots of warmth for your horse. Feeding soaked beet pulp is another way to provide your horse with a highly digestible source of fiber.

     While the average horseís feed requirements are 1.5 to 3 percent of the horseís body weight, horses in the senior citizen range may require as high as 120 percent of the National Research Councilís recommendations for daily intake.

     What does this mean? Say your average horse weighs approximately 1000 pounds. In order to feed him at the NRCís recommended daily intake you will need to provide your horse with 15 to 30 pounds of feed/forage. For an older horse this can mean furnishing him up to 120 pounds of feed/forage per day. To add more fat calories without adding bulk, you might consider adding a cup of vegetable oil to his daily grain ration.

     No matter what the season, horses require anywhere from 8 to 12 gallons of water a day. Many equine veterinary practitioners note that there is a significant rise in colic (impaction)during the winter months, with the culprit being inadequate consumption of water. Owners should be aware of the lower moisture content in their horseís winter feed. While grass is more than 70 percent water, hay contains less than 10 percent moisture. By providing an adequate supply of clean warm water at a temperature of 45 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit your horse should stay well hydrated. Still itís wise to watch for impending signs of trouble.

     The body of a horse consists of 68 to 72 percent water and symptoms of dehydration can become apparent when a horse is only 5 percent dehydrated. Daily checking of your horseís manure can give you a fairly good idea as too how well hydrated he is. Also you might like to frequently check your horse for dehydration by using the pinch test. To do so, pinch a section of skin over the horseís shoulder. If the pinched skin rebounds immediately your horse is doing well but if it takes longer than 1 second to rebound your horse is beginning to show slight dehydration. If it takes over 3 seconds for the pinched skin to rebound your horse is in need of immediate re-hydration.

     Another method to check for dehydration is to check capillary-refill. Lift your horseís upper lip and take note as to the texture and color of the gums...normal being moist and light pink. Press your thumb firmly against the gum. Remove your finger and count how many seconds it takes for the gum to turn from white back to a healthy pink color. Normal capillary-refill is 1.5 to 2 seconds or less. If the change back to pink takes 3 seconds or longer the horse is dehydrated. If the gums feel sticky and dry or are overall white in color your horse requires immediate replenishment of fluids.

Those Cozy Coats

     As the autumn nights began to lengthen and temperatures started to drop, horses adapt by growing generous winter coats. The denseness of the winter coat and the direction in which it grows is very efficient in retaining heat and providing an all weather shield to fend off the effects of snow and freezing rain.

     During very cold temperatures the hair seems to stand on end making the horse appear even more fuzzy than usual. This actually helps to trap an insulating layer of warmed air next to the horseís skin just as a down jacket works to keep us comfortable when we head out each morning to feed our horses. This wonderful design of nature will keep the horse warm even in sub zero temperatures provided that a bone-chilling wind does not disturb the hair. Wind blowing through the hair coat will precipitate the loss of the trapped warm air. For this reason its important to provide your horse with some kind of windbreak or shelter. Although trees can yield some protection from wind and freezing rain, an open run-in shed is even better, provided the open side is faced away from the prevailing winds.

     A horse that is allowed to grow a full winter coat and is furnished with some form of shelter and room to move around freely should not need a blanket to keep warm. In fact a blanket placed on a horse with a winter coat will actually compress the hair, diminishing the hairís natural insulating ability.

     But if there are plans to show or school your horse heavily during the winter months, the long coat may become a hindrance. Working a horse with a heavy winter coat can trap the sweat next to his hide, which, if the horse is not carefully cooled out, will subject the horse to post-exercise chills. In this case it may be best not to allow your horse to grow a full winter coat.

     Early in the fall begin blanketing the horse and if possible put the horse under lights. Timed artificial lights will replace the dwindling daylight hours and it is light rather than temperature that triggers the growth of hair.

     Once you have intervened in your horseís natural process of growing hair you should provide the horse with warm blankets throughout the winter. As a rule of thumb, it takes about 2 inches of blanket thickness to replace an inch of natural hair coat. Be sure to use a water proof blanket on horses that are not confined to stalls. A wet blanket is worse than no blanket at all.

     Use common sense when blanketing. Each horse has his own requirements and those needs will vary as the temperature changes. What was comfortable at night may vary well be dreadfully unpleasant at noon.

Winter Riding Tips

* Frozen ground, cold temperatures and tight tendons can result in leg injuries. Winter riding requires longer, slower warm ups to prevent injuries and longer cool downs to ward off chills.

* Ride in familiar areas. Snow can hide hidden holes, ice or other hazards that can cause a misstep or injury.

* "Balling up" of ice and snow under the hoof can cause injuries that can be anything from bruised soles to pulled tendons. To prevent snow build up, try applying a nonstick substance to the bottom of the hoof, such as, ski wax, melted paraffin, or a fatty substance like butter. Spraying the hoof with the nonstick baking-pan coating, Pam, works well too. If your horse is shod throughout the winter, you can have your farrier add Snowball pads to the front shoes, which are designed to pop out packed snow.

* Avoid sudden stopping and standing during strenuous activity in cooler temperatures. Warmed up muscles that are brought to a standstill can cramp up painfully. Slow walking to gradually cool the muscle mass will prevent cramps.

* Very cold air can bother your horseís mucous membranes or lungs. If you must ride, keep your horse at a slow pace in temperatures lower than 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

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