Caring for your Horse in the Extreme Cold

Written By: Lisa Nesson, DVM

Written By: Lisa Nesson, DVM

Following the long fall and then delightfully warm early portion of this winter, cold temperatures have finally arrived here in the Upper Midwest with temperatures plunging into the single digits and wind chill temperatures well below zero.  Not just your dogs and cats need protection from this weather – your horses require special consideration as well to withstand the cold.  Here are a few tips to consider going into the coldest portion of our winter.

Protection from the weather

Horses in good health and good body condition (body condition score of 5-6 or higher) with a fully grown winter hair coat can withstand significant drops in temperature provided they have some protection from the wind and wet (rain/sleet) conditions.  Snow is tolerated much better than rain and sleet in horses with a well grown hair coat due to the insulating effect of such a coat.  Rain and sleet wets the hair down and diminishes the insulating capacity of the coat.  Wind chills coupled with a wet coat will obviously lead to potential hypothermia.  A “shelter” for a horse doesn’t have to mean a full barn. It can be a tree line wind break, a three sided shed or an enclosed barn and stalls that may or may not be heated.  If using an enclosed barn, be sure that it is adequately ventilated to prevent dust, ammonia and mold accumulation and excessive humidity/moisture as these will all increase the likelihood of respiratory issues.  If using a three sided shed with a group of horses, be sure that the pecking order of the group allows all horses to use the shelter and that the shelter is of adequate size for the group – 2 horses that get along need about 12×20 feet, each additional horse needs 6×10 feet (miniatures less, drafts more for obvious reasons).  Consider bedding the shelter area if it is to be the sleeping area for the horses – they are more likely to lie down in a bedded area than one that is not bedded.


The short answer to whether or not a horse needs blanketing lies in the health of the horse, body condition, weather conditions, shelter available and hair coat quality (thin or body clipped to fully grown). Which means that there isn’t really a short answer! More horses get blanketed in the winter because the owners are cold than because the horses require it.  Horses that are thin (hard keepers), ill, very old or very young are most likely to benefit from blanketing.  Be sure that the blankets used are rated to protect for the temperatures the horse will be experiencing as well as being waterproof.  Otherwise, the blanket will flatten the hair coat and inhibit the insulating ability of the hair coat, making the horse colder than they might have been if left not blanketed.  If they are in good health, adequate body condition, have adequate shelter and have adequate forage and water available, they likely will not need blanketing for the better part, if not all, of the winter.


Cold temperatures do increase the energy demands of the horse.  The lower critical temperature (the temperature at which they start to burn calories to stay warm) for a horse with a full winter coat is 18 degrees F.  Lower critical temperature is influenced by the health of the horse, body condition, hair coat and size of the horse. For example, smaller equines lose more heat than larger horses.  Digesting forages generates more heat than digesting concentrates, therefore, increasing the amount of hay fed will help them maintain their body temperature and energy needs.  A 1000 pound horse will need two extra pounds of forage to maintain body weight and keep warm on a zero degree day.  A good rule of thumb is to increase hay by 1% for each degree below 18 degrees F.

Water demands also increase in the winter time.  The feeds that horses eat in the winter have a lower moisture content then the pasture grasses they have access to in the summer.  Hay/grain is typically only 15% moisture, compared to pasture grass which is 60% moisture.  

A typical 1000 pound horse will drink about 10 to 12 gallons of water per day.  Decreased water intake will result in decreased feed intake, which can lead to impaction colic. Because of this, we need to take additional measures to ensure our horses are drinking the appropriate amount of water. You can heat your water to encourage additional water intake. If water temperatures are kept above 45 degrees F, horses will drink more than if the water temperature is colder.  Additionally, feeding 1 to 2 ounces of loose salt per day will encourage the horse to drink more water.  Loose salt is preferable in the winter to a salt block because horses are less likely to lick a salt block at frigid temperatures.  Finally, be sure the water is thawed out and accessible in a tank that is not surrounded by ice.  Check the footing around the tank – if it’s an ice rink around the water tank, your horse won’t try to reach the water.  Also be sure the tank heater doesn’t have an electrical short that is electrifying the tank and scaring the horses off – your horse will be quick to learn that as soon as they take a sip of water, they get a shock.  

Level of work

While mild to moderate exercise is recommended to keep the horse in shape, heavier exercise that forces them to breath in large volumes of very cold air can result in airway and lung irritation and even damage.  Therefore, use common sense as the temperatures drop below freezing and consider less strenuous activities for your horse. If you’re not comfortable, neither is your horse.


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