Winter Weather Worries: Equine Health Issues - Horses [Skip to Content]

Illinois Livestock Trail
Winter Weather Worries: Equine Health Issues
by Dr. Jim Brendemuehl, Equine Extension Veterinarian, Univ. of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

The howling wind gave me a jolt as I was breaking ice on the water troughs earlier this week and the reality of my first full Midwest winter hit home. While I enjoy winter weather and the recreational opportunities the season provides, there are some important horse health issues to remember as well.

From the ground up, wet winter weather creates special problems for hoof health. If horses are forced to stand in water and mud for prolonged periods, hooves absorb water and can become excessively soft. Providing a dry area for half of the day is sufficient to maintain hoof integrity. Shoes in the winter are a mixed blessing and probably should be removed if the horse isn't going to be regularly ridden.

Of all the issues impacting horse health in the winter, water is at the top of the list. As temperatures plunge, water consumption decreases and the possibility of colic increases. This is compounded by the fact that the forage horses are consuming in the winter, primarily in the form of hay, is quite low in water content. This combination predisposes horses to gastrointestinal problems, most commonly in the form of impaction colic.

To ensure and encourage adequate water consumption, a readily available source of fresh water must be provided. It is also important to note that horses will consume more water when it is warmed above 65°F. The warm water, in fact, stimulates gastrointestinal motility, further helping to prevent impaction.

Winter usually means a shift in forage from pasture to predominantly hay. High quality hay should be the cornerstone of your winter nutrition program. In most cases, free choice hay can provide all the nutrient requirements, even with the increased demands of winter. There are several advantages of good quality hay over grain:

  1. Hay provides a lower per unit cost
  2. Hay provides additional benefits of maintaining gastrointestinal function and generates body heat during digestion
With colder weather and increased stabling time, poor ventilation and dusty forage can predispose horses to respiratory problems, particularly in horses prone to them. Minimizing molds and dust is essential for maintaining respiratory health. In horses with a history of allergic airway disease or "heaves" this is especially true. Wetting the hay to minimize dust or going to an all pellet form of feed might be necessary.

Shelter from wind and particularly rain should be provided. Horses that have been allowed to acclimate through the fall, putting on a winter coat, handle freezing temperatures quite well if protected from getting wet. Open sided run in sheds is a good option, providing protection from wind and rain and still affording good ventilation.

To blanket or not to blanket is another issue. Blankets come in wind and water proof designs that can enable horses to stay outside and be protected from the rain and wind chill. My wife's 21-year-old, California "Hairless Gewurstemeiner" would be in tough shape without his "Weather Beater." If you decide to blanket, it is important this be maintained for the entire winter to avoid shocking horses' systems.

Even though the weather is a little challenging outside, by taking a few extra measures to ensure your horses stay healthy the winter months can be an enjoyable time as we anticipate the coming of spring.

For more information about taking care of your horse in the winter time, consult your local equine veterinarian.

For a printer friendly version of this article please click on the PDF file below.

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