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9 tips on how to care for horses in the winter

October 20, 2021
Horse cold weather

Fall is a perfect time to make chore-efficient updates to your horse farm equipment and property. The weather is cool enough for hard work and the timing is good, allowing you to accomplish key tasks that will help you ease into and thrive through the coming winter months, when horse keeping is most challenging. Here is a fall to-do list to get you started:

1. Review your lighting needs.

During the winter, horse owners often have no choice but to feed both the morning and evening meals in the dark. As such, having indoor as well as outdoor lighting will help immensely with chore efficiency. Make sure you have enough light to weigh your hay and to ensure that you’re feeding quality hay that is mold-free and green. Cleaning paddocks and staying mud-free will be easier if there’s outdoor lighting so you can see the manure. Additionally, providing solar lighting along walkways or drives will help make nighttime travels safer. Prepare the proper lighting now, instead of waiting until the temperatures are freezing and you have to feed by flashlight, set up lighting in frozen ground or hang outside lights in sub-zero temperatures.

2. Consider your winter equipment needs.

The simple items are often the most beneficial — for example, a headlamp that frees up your hands for outside evening chores, like filling stock water tanks, or is handy in case of power outages. If winter storms are likely in your region, make sure you have fuel for your generators and cook stoves and batteries for your lanterns on hand. Manure carts that can push through snow (thanks to their higher clearance and wider tires), along with a sturdy manure fork, might also be useful. We like to keep a metal pitchfork and flat metal shovel on hand in case we need to chip away at frozen manure piles for removal.

"Horse equipment for winter"

3. Set up a water supply that won’t freeze or get ice-cold during winter weather events.

A horse drinks 8 to 12 gallons of water per day and prefers water temperatures of around 45 to 65 degrees. Horses drink less when the water is ice-cold, and research shows that they cannot get adequately hydrated by solely eating snow. Inadequate water intake can lead to colic, so make sure your horses are drinking enough. On very cold days, plan to break the ice twice daily — or consider getting a tank heater, a plug-in heated stall bucket or a heated muck bucket for the water.

4. Develop a back-up plan for watering your horses.

If you are concerned that you might lose power to your private well and/or you live in an area that often loses power you should have a back-up plan. Water can be stored in rain barrels or garbage cans. Emergency officials generally recommend keeping a three-day supply of water on hand, which translates to a minimum of 30 gallons of water per horse.

5. Check your turnout blankets.

Look for rips or other needed mending or washing so they will be ready for use when you need them. Blanketing horses appropriately in the winter is key for their ability to maintain body heat during cold weather.

6. Consider your own wintertime, water-proof clothing needs.

This is a fundamental but often overlooked step. As a horse owner, if there’s an emergency, you are likely to be working with horses in inclement weather for an undetermined amount of time. Invest in a good, waterproof jacket, insulated mud boots and insulated, waterproof gloves. These items will go a long way toward helping you stay ahead of your winter chores and will also be crucial if there’s a winter emergency. You are no good to your horses if you become hypothermic and have a medical emergency yourself.

"Waterproof gear for horse riding"

7. Flood-proof your property.

If you live in a flood-prone area (e.g., near a creek, river or wetlands), it is good to review the high-water locations on your property. If it is difficult to visualize or determine where they are, get help from your county or your local conservation district. Acquaint yourself with the historic high-water locations recorded for your property. If you live in an extremely flood-prone area, it may be wise to consider building a “critter pad.” A critter pad is a large mound or small hill that’s built above flood level and is used to keep animals out of water. Critter pads usually require special permitting and must be specifically engineered using the approved fill material to ensure that they can stand up to high traffic, heavy rains and high volumes of water – and, of course, that they will remain above flood levels. In some cases, there may be funding or technical assistance available to help with the development of a critter pad. Contact your local conservation district, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for more assistance.

8. Check your gutters and downspouts.

Now is the time to clean and make needed repairs or additions to your roof runoff system. Doing this will benefit you and your horse by reducing the amount of mud your horse will have to stand in during the winter. It will also make chore time easier. “Keep clean rainwater clean,” as they say, by diverting rainwater away from your paddocks and high-traffic areas to a location where it won’t get muddy. Some good choices include grassy swales, dry wells, rain barrels, stock watering tanks, well-vegetated woods or an unused portion of your pasture.

9. Determine if you need footing for any of your confinement areas.

These areas get a lot of heavy use during winter and can often benefit from being bolstered with additional footing material. Footing — usually coarse-washed sand or crushed rock (no larger than 1 inch) — is generally the best choice and is also the easiest to clear of manure. Having 3 to 6 inches of footing material for horses to stand on will help with drainage and mud management and will also help eliminate erosion.

"Horse footing"

Taking these steps this fall will not only make your life easier come winter, but it will also contribute to your horse’s health all year long.

Read more tips and ideas on winter preparedness and nature-based solutions for horse property management at Horses for Clean Water.


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