Winter has an icy grip on most of the United States, and with even sunny Florida facing record freezing temperatures, horse owners across the country need to keep a close eye on their herds to prevent cold-weather related ailments.
In cold weather, horse owners should be thinking, "water, water, water," said Jean T. Griffiths, extension horse specialist at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
Water is essential for regulating body temperature, said Greg Meyer, extension educator for large animals at Ohio State University. "We typically think of keeping horses cool with water, but water is required for energy for keeping them warm as well."
If you don't have a water heater to prevent pails or tubs from freezing, Griffiths suggested bringing warm water from the house to keep water unfrozen for a longer period of time. Warmer water can also encourage horses to drink more. "Nobody in these temperatures would want to drink 32° water," Meyer said.
Horses will also need more hay as they expend more energy trying to keep warm. "You want to make sure they have plenty of hay, but remember you're going to need more water as you increase the amount of dry matter going through their GI tract to avoid colic and impaction," said Griffiths.
When frigid temperatures set in, many owners immediately pack their animals into barns and reach for blankets to help their horses ward off the chill, but in some cases these steps can do more harm than good. "Even though you're trying to be nice to horses by closing them up in buildings, a lot of barns might not have the best ventilation," said Meyer. "From a health perspective, the more you close animals in, the more likely that sickness can spread."
If you do keep your horses stabled, Meyer recommends improving ventilation by leaving a door or window that is out of the wind open. According to Griffiths, most horses will do well in a covered three sided shed, which allows them to get out of the wind. "Horses can deal with the cold, but they can't deal with the wind," she said.
As for blanketing, Karen Waite, equine extension specialist at Michigan State University, said often it's unwarranted. "Horses are pretty well designed to keep warm provided they have a full coat and a body condition score of five or higher," she explained.
If you do choose to blanket your horse, Waite recommended checking the blanket regularly for dampness. "If they get soaked through, hypothermia can become an issue," she said.
Meyer concluded, "This is all common sense stuff that we sometimes forget because we're trying to deal with the cold ourselves."
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.