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Winter care for your pasture horse

Environmental changes expose horses to an abundance of seasonal health risks, all of which can be prevented with a little extra effort on the part of the horse owner. We must do our best to protect our horses from its icy grip. Particular attention must be placed on creating a safe, healthy living environment, feeding adequate nutrition, ensuring proper hoof care, and providing protection from the cold.


We all know how difficult it is to maintain our balance 

while carefully treading across a slippery  sheet of ice. Now imagine trying the same task without rubber-soled boots and add an extra pair of legs. This is a challenge a horse faces every winter. To prevent traumatic injuries (such as bruises, sprains and lacerations) caused by slipping or falling on ice or slushy snow, keep walkways shoveled and salted or sanded. Whenever possible, avoid walking your horse over ice or other potentially slippery areas.


The snow itself is a potential danger. Even a thin blanket of snow may disguise objects on the ground, such as a forgotten lunge line or one of your dog’s toys. These are tripping hazards and could cause potential injury. Try to reduce such risks by carefully assessing your surroundings and practicing good housekeeping habits.


Intermittent thaws introduce the risk of mud. Low sections of the pasture and areas of greater traffic tend to get slippery and could result in traumatic injury just as it can for icy situations. In addition, the wet conditions could cause a moist bacterial or fungal skin infection of the lower leg, commonly referred to as “scratches.” Rain rot is another painful skin infection that occurs with wet weather conditions. Horses that are exposed to extended periods of sleet or rainfall with no opportunities to adequately dry their thick winter coats are perfect candidates for this destructive organism. It is best to try to prevent such infections from occurring by providing a dry environment.

Hoof care

In the winter, your horse’s hooves are exposed to the firm, unforgiving surfaces of frozen soil. This will require that you pay particular attention to hoof care as there is a greater potential for chipping and cracking if your horse is unshod.

To prevent sole bruises, which could ultimately develop into abscesses, monitor feet regularly for ice packing. If you find that ice is accumulating in your horse’s sole, try picking its feet out more regularly and applying Vaseline to the soles to help prevent the ice from building up. If your horse is particularly susceptible to sole bruising, consider alternate hoof care (i.e. pads) as recommended by your farrier.

Encourage water consumption

Water is always a problem in the winter. Some horses do not like to drink freezing-cold water or don’t want to break through the ice and their water intake decreases as a result. Either way is dangerous and can lead to impaction colic.

If you keep a bucket filled with water outside where the horses are, it helps to place a small rubber ball or two in the water – dog toys about the size of a tennis ball are good. They will float on top and keep the water moving so it doesn’t freeze as quickly. Use soft, pliable black rubber buckets in the horse’s stall for water because they are pretty much indestructible. When the water freezes overnight, you can hit the sides of the bucket to break up the ice.

Be aware that studies have shown that most horses prefer icy cold water to warm water. It was found that during cold weather horses who have only warm water available will drink a greater volume per day than if they have only icy cold water available. But if they have a choice between either warm and icy water, they drink almost exclusively from the icy, and drink less volume than if they have only warm water available.

If you suspect your horse’s water consumption is less than normal, then try offering warm water at feeding time. It has been observed that horses in stalls which are fed hay and grain typically do most of their drinking within a few minutes after eating their grain and within an hour or so after they are given hay. This observation has been fairly consistent in other drinking behavior and nutrition studies of horses.

Another option is to install a heater. A variety of stock tank and water bucket heaters are available and are excellent tools to prevent your horse’s drinking water from freezing. Extreme caution must be taken when utilizing such tools as misuse could lead to electrical shock. Make certain that the heating devices are safely installed and securely mounted and that your horse cannot access the power cord.

Keep in mind that water buckets get tainted with manure, debris and food just as quickly in the winter as they do in the summer. This may be another reason that your horse’s water consumption could decrease and it is not hygienic or healthy. Water buckets must be cleaned regularly, despite the cold weather.

If the water you are providing is the horse’s only source of water (no access to pond, stream, etc.), monitor the amount that is drunk to make sure it is consuming enough for its needs. Horses need at least 10-12 gallons of unfrozen water daily and donkeys require 4-8 gallons. These amounts may increase as they expend more energy staying warm. An equine may not drink even if dehydrated. It will become fussy with its food and eventually stop eating all together.


It is a common misconception that horses need less feed in the winter because they are less active. The truth of the matter is that a horse’s metabolic needs for routine maintenance in the winter are greater than that in the summer since more energy is needed to maintain body temperature. In addition, the winter temperatures and shorter daylight hours wreak havoc on their pastures, which are now dried, yellow and possibly buried under ice. Even if your horse can access the grass to graze, he will gain no nutritional value from it. If you are not sure if your horse’s nutrition is adequate, consult with an equine nutritionist.

Provide protection from the cold

Ideally, each of us would own a fully enclosed, draft-free stable, but this is not always a feasible option. A three-sided lean-to can offer protection from wind chill, sleet, rain and snow, but not cold. In most cases, this should be adequate, but always take the temperatures into account. If the weather reports are declaring freezing temperatures, you also need to consider your horses. Do the best you can to provide them with a warm environment. You may want to take some time to consider optional stabling when the temperatures drop to dangerously low levels.


If you are concerned that your horse’s winter coat is inadequate, you should provide it with a durable winter blanket. The blanket will need to be well maintained and properly fitted to your horse. Conduct routine inspections for damage or wear to the blanket and make repairs as necessary. It is helpful to own an extra blanket so that you can perform routine maintenance and cleaning while still providing protection to your horse.

Examine your horse daily for rubbing or abrasions caused by improper blanket wear. To prevent the formation of lesions, choose a blanket that properly fits your horse’s structure. If you are unsure of the style of blanket your particular horse requires or what size you would need to purchase, discuss your options with the helpful tack personnel at your local Quality Co-op stores or a trusted and knowledgeable horseperson.

As after any physical workout, be sure to adequately cool your horse. Do not replace his blanket if he is still wet with perspiration as this will cause the blanket to absorb the moisture and will no longer protect your horse from the cold.


In case of injury, make sure your equine medicine chest is full and up to date. It’s a good idea, though, to store medications like creams or ointments in a heated tack room or your house because they will harden in cold weather and can be difficult to use. Check expiration dates on medications and discard those that have expired.

By paying close attention to the environment in which your horse lives and ensuring its nutritional and physical health, you can help your horse weather the winter in fit condition.



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Date Last Updated January, 2006