Owners need to check their horse’s health and wellbeing all year round, but winter can be an especially challenging time. From the cold unpredictable weather, to sparse fields and animals being more prone to illness, your horse will need more care and attention over the winter months.
Keeping on top of farriery, veterinary and dental care is a key part of horse ownership over the winter season. The more attentive you are to your horse’s needs, the fewer trips to the vets will be required. Keeping up to date with admin (everything from your horse’s passport to horsebox insurance) will also ensure you’re ready for whatever the season throws at you.
The level of care you give your horse will depend on their age, breed, size, coat and surroundings. Here’s our guide to caring for a horse in winter.
During the warmer months, your horse will be spoiled for choice in terms of grazing. In winter, you need to be more attentive to ensure your horse is getting the right nutrition. A wonderfully grassy field can quickly turn into a muddy quagmire with heavy rain or snow.
During the colder months, it’s unlikely your horse will need a major change to its feeding regime, but you may need to make a few adjustments. They will need plenty of fibre in their diet as this is what they use to create body heat. Roughage, such as grass and hay, usually forms 2% of their body weight – in extreme conditions this can go up to 2.5 or 3% as more warmth is required.
Make sure you provide supplementary feeding throughout winter. Good quality hay will give them the nutrition they need. If your horse is prone to putting on weight easily, you might want to source some low-calorie hay. Different types of hay can vary wildly in calorie content. Feeding your horse 50% hay and 50% barley straw can help contribute to weight loss. You could also use different feeding systems – such as multiple small-holed hay nets, loose hay, and hay troughs – as a way to slow down the rate of food intake.
Be sure to introduce any changes to your horse’s food gradually, over a period of at least a week, as any sudden changes may cause problems. You should also check your horse’s teeth are in good shape before introducing straw as it is harder to chew.
It is important that your horse has access to plenty of clean, fresh water every day. Adult horses can easily drink between 3-4 buckets of water (around 24 to 36 litres) each day. And if the amount of forage they are consuming goes up, so does their water consumption – up to 5-6 buckets or 40 to 45 litres per day.
As well as providing your horse with much-needed hydration, water also helps with digestion. When a horse cannot access enough water, food does not pass along the gut effectively and this can lead to impaction colic. Plus, at this time of year, they’re not getting the additional moisture they would during the summer months from succulent grasses.
Check water troughs every day to make sure the water hasn’t frozen over, and break up and remove any ice when needed.
Horses tend to drink less water during winter as the water temperature is much colder. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to encourage horses to drink more over the winter months.
- Reduce the chance of freezing by adding warm water to the bucket or trough. This will also make the water more palatable for your horse.
- Use a thermal wrap to keep the water insulated.
- Consider using an electric trough or bucket warmer that will apply heat during the night and keep ice at bay.
- Always use the biggest trough you have available during the winter and keep it filled to the brim (the more water in there, the longer it will take to freeze over).
- Another option is covering some of the trough’s surface with plywood or polystyrene – leaving enough space for your horse to drink – as this will also help insulate the water, but be careful your horse doesn’t eat it by accident as this could cause further problems.
The temperature a human starts to feel cold is different to the temperature a horse starts feeling chilly. A healthy adult horse is able to regulate its own body temperature when the outside temperature is between 5°C and 25°C. Even when the mercury drops below 5°C, a horse is still able to make adjustments to warm themselves up – for example by increasing their metabolic rate, finding shelter, eating more or reducing blood flow to their limbs.
To check your horse’s temperature, feel their neck, withers and body (not their legs, ears and face). If the temperature outside is nearing 0°C make sure you provide additional forage, check the mud levels in their field, and rug them.
Rugging a horse helps keep them warm during the winter months. However, it’s not just a case of throwing a rug on a horse as soon as the temperature drops. Knowing when to rug a horse and the type of rug to use can be tricky. You need to consider factors such as age, breed and mobility before investing in a rug. Too heavy, and the rug could cause rubbing or injury, and if your horse grows a thick winter coat, a rug may not be required at all.
There are three types of horse rugs to choose from:
- Turnout rugs: These rugs are perfect when you want to turn out your horse for the winter, providing a high level of insulation as well as a waterproof outer (so are fine for your horse to wear in the rain and mud). Turnout rugs come in different weights and can be used with a liner and neck cover on really cold days.
- Stable rugs: A stable rug – as the name suggests – is better when worn inside a stable. Your horse will have limited movement in a stable (compared to being outside), and stables are often well-ventilated. A stable rug provides warmth – but not too much. They are generally padded and breathable, allowing your horse to sweat, but not catch a chill. These lightweight rugs are not waterproof and if they get wet will become sodden and uncomfortable for your horse to wear.
- Sheets: Another lightweight option, sheets are more suited to the spring and summer months. They are handy for keeping your horse clean after grooming or when travelling in a horsebox. Saying that, a grubby horse is probably the least of your concerns when transporting your horse from A to B, find out more about our insurance for your horse box to ensure safe transfer.
With the changing seasons, you will likely require more than one type of rug. Making sure your horse doesn’t get too cold is just as important as ensuring they don’t overheat in milder temperatures.
When the weather outside is cold, wet or even freezing, you might find your horse wants to spend more time in a stable. But while shelter gives them some respite from harsh weather conditions, horses often get colder when they are inside. This is because they are unable to move around as much as they would if they were outside – especially so if the stable is made of brick or concrete.
Of course, none of this is a problem as long as you keep your horse warm. Make sure all bedding is clean and dry and use a stable rug if you think your horse needs it.
Even if you decide not to stable your horse over winter, you must make sure they have constant access to shelter. This could be either natural (a thick hedgerow or a copse of trees accessible from the field) or a man-made shelter. A three-sided construction can work very well – as long as it is large enough to house all the horses in the field at any one time. Even if you don’t think your horse will use it, you can be sure they will seek some kind of shelter when the very worst weather hits.
If you are moving your horse into a stable for the winter, make sure they are ready for the relocation. As well as having horsebox insurance, the journey will need a bit more planning and preparation than a quick trip to the vets. Find out more about transporting your horse safely.
As the weather worsens it’s important to keep checking the state of the field your horse is in. Fields can easily become boggy, so you want to reduce the amount of mud your horse comes into contact with. If one part of the field has better drainage, create a smaller paddock area to avoid your horse straying into the mud. Using gravel, wood chips, or boarding can work well in any high traffic areas to keep mud levels down. You might also want to move feeding and watering areas to reduce the amount the ground is churned up in any one place.
Another thing to be aware of is that snow and ice aren’t great for your horse, causing injury if allowed to build up. Check each hoof regularly as part of your grooming routine. If conditions are bad it might be worth doing this twice a day, removing any build up and checking for lacerations.
If you need to move your horse during the winter, you should always err on the side of caution. Driving a horsebox is a very different experience to driving a car, whatever the season. You need to take extra care because of the extra weight and size of the vehicle. Add extreme weather conditions such as snow, ice or persistent heavy rain, and the drive just got even harder.
If the roads are looking treacherous, the first rule is to take things slowly. Give yourself plenty of time to read the road ahead, and recognise that stopping distances will be reduced. It goes without saying you should stick to the speed limit.
Remember: overloading your horsebox, driving with any serious mechanical defects and exceeding legal driving hours (no more than nine hours a day if you’re driving for business) are all serious offences that put you and other road users at risk. If you’re found ignoring these rules, you could face a fine and/or a prison sentence. It may even invalidate your horsebox insurance.
You can find out more about how to drive a horsebox safely and with confidence in our recent blog.
If you’re going to take good care of a horse in winter, you’ll need to know some of the common health problems this time of year. We all know that a neglected horse is an upsetting sight to see. But identifying ailments and seeking treatment early will catch potential problems before they become an issue.
Here are three conditions that become more prevalent during winter.
- Mud fever: If a horse is standing in damp muddy conditions for long periods of time, they could get mud fever. Also known as scratches or pastern dermatitis, it’s a skin infection that affects a horse’s lower leg. Symptoms include: scabbed and lesioned skin, thick discharge, swelling, and hair loss. Reducing the contact your horse has with mud and washing it off their skin quickly is the best way to prevent this condition.
- Rain scald: Similar to mud fever, rain scald affects a horse’s neck, back and rear end. Again, it happens when a horse is exposed to damp conditions for a prolonged period. It can be avoided by providing shelter in a field, stabling the horse, or putting them in a waterproof turnout rug.
- Winter laminitis: During the colder months, laminitis is particularly prevalent among horses that have suffered with the condition previously, have insulin resistance or equine metabolic syndrome. It can cause severe pain in the legs and is often hard to spot during winter as the ground can be harder to walk on.
Find horsebox insurance at Equesure
Equesure are horsebox insurance specialists. Our policies can include breakdown cover as well as cover for any driver over 25 – meaning if you were unable to drive the horsebox, a friend or relative could take over.
Find out more about horsebox insurance today and keep your investment protected.
Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.