6 Tips for Horse Owners during the cold spell

6 Tips for Horse Owners during the cold spell

With snow now after hitting most parts of Ireland and UK and temperatures dropping below freezing “The Beast from the East” has truly landed.  With that in mind here are six important tips on how owners can keep horses healthy and safe during these icy days;

  1. Provide adequate calories. The phrase “bulking up for winter” is no joke! Horses expend significantly more calories keeping warm in the winter than they do any other time of year. If snow is preventing grazing it is vital to ensure your horse has access to a constant supply of forage such as hay or haylage. The digestion of fibre can also help to keep your horse warm. They should have dry, fresh hay or haylage available at all times to keep their caloric losses less than their gains. Older horses or horses with significant dental disease that cannot eat hay productively need to receive calories more frequently in a form that they can use, such as soaking high fibre feeds or offering senior feeds.
  2. Provide water, NOT ice. Horses may be reluctant to drink during a severe cold spell, this can lead to dehydration and is one of the major causes of impaction colic. You need to keep water troughs and buckets free of ice so that the horses can drink. Once you’ve broken the ice you can add a bucket of hot water. Filling an empty plastic drinks water bottle 1/3 salt and 2/3 water, ensure the lid is secure and place in the water bucket/trough – this is an effective way of helping to stop water buckets from freezing over. As horses may be reluctant to drink freezing water, you could try adding some apples to encourage them to “bob” for them and take in some water or try adding extra water to their feeds.
  3. Provide sufficient shelter. Most horses will be happy outdoors as long as they are dry and out of the wind. Treat mares and foals as you would normally – a short period of daily turnout is ok for very young foals as long as they can get out of the wind and are dry. As long as they are metabolically healthy, receive enough calories, develop a nice winter coat, and have appropriate shelter, they can happily ride out a bad winter that has humans groaning.

Many horses don’t need to be rugged up, although waterproof/breathable rugs can help protect against driving wind and rain. Cold temperatures alone don’t generally make horses uncomfortable, but wind and moisture can be difficult for them to tolerate, so they must be able to escape the elements. The best solution is a structural shelter that is big enough to allow all of the horses in that field to safely get out of the weather.

  1. Rug up consistently and check frequently.Rugging up can be useful to keep horses warm, dry, and happy. Your horse may need to be rugged if they are elderly, clipped or thin skinned. Try not to over rug your horse as this can lead to complications due to over-heating. If your horse is outside ensure there is adequate shelter to protect from the weather conditions. Always have a spare rug on stand-by in-case you need to swap if the current rug gets very wet. Changes in body condition, such as a horse that is losing weight rapidly, can also be missed if the rug isn’t removed frequently to check. It’s a good idea to take note of any new lumps and bumps that might not be seen with the rug on.


  1. Be smart about clipping. Horses have a thick winter coat for a reason—it’s designed to protect them. Many people who ride throughout the winter find it helpful to clip their horses to help keep them more comfortable during exercise and to help reduce drying time after exercise. Before clipping, consider your horses intended workload and how prone they are to heavy sweating, this will help you to decide which style of clip will be more effective – don’t take off more than you need to! It is fine to turn out appropriately rugged, clipped horses in the winter weather. However, owners should be cautious about clipping horses that live outside through the winter because they will then need to be very diligent about blanketing as temperatures fluctuate. It isn’t fair to a horse to remove his winter woolies and then not blanket him well enough. Owners who have clipped their horses entirely, including the head and ears, need to be diligent about keeping them inside during excessively cold temperatures, as frostbite can occur.


  1. Pay attention to footing. Most horses do just fine in just about any amount of snow, but ice is another story. Be very cautious about ice on surfaces where the horses walk, either to get to turnout or within their turnout. Fractured bones or down horses can be an unintended consequence of dicey footing. Keep quantities of rock salt handy for when ice develops (but don’t forget to watch out for your cats and dogs that might not tolerate rock salt on their pads.) If your horse is outside, check that there is no compacted snow in their hooves. The application of grease or petroleum jelly to the sole of the hoof can prevent snow building up. Salting driveways/ paths is very important to providing care, especially in an emergency situation

If you have any nutritional questions please contact any member of the GAIN Equine nutrition Team or call 1890 321 321 / +353 (0) 56 8836600