Horses look to you for care

January 23, 2007|by JEFF SEMLER

Since Old Man Winter has finally arrived, we are reminded of the challenges that winter horse care brings.

The cold, snow, ice, rain, wind and any combination thereof, complicates barn chores and limits riding time.

For these reasons, folks typically do not spend as much time in their barns or with their horses during the winter months.

However, Extension specialists suggest by keeping a few simple things in mind, you can ensure your horses are receiving adequate care this time of year.

Here's my advice:

· Access to water - With the cold weather brings the risk for frozen water buckets and troughs in our stalls and pastures. Free and continuous access to water is important to maintain healthy horses. Excessively cold water will decrease your horse's water consumption.


Ideally, water should be maintained at about 40F - heated waterers are commonly used to assure the water source is not too cold or frozen over.

When a horse's water consumption decreases, feed intake also decreases, leaving less energy available to maintain body temperature and condition.

Reduced water and feed intake also leave your horse at risk of a number of intestinal health issues, including dehydration and impaction colic.

· Adequate shelter - While horses will need some protection from the elements, it is not necessary to keep them in a closed barn throughout the winter.

Horses have two natural defenses against the cold - a long winter coat and a layer of fat beneath the skin, providing an excellent source of insulation.

Keep in mind that the insulating ability of a horse's hair coat is lost when a horse is wet or covered in mud, so it is important to provide a dry shelter for them in cold, wet weather and regular grooming.

· Proper nutrition - Provided forage quality remains consistent, horses' nutritional needs do not significantly change during the winter months.

Older horses or horses with compromised health may have a more difficult time maintaining body condition in extreme cold weather.

However, this is generally not an issue in this region. A horse should be fed according to its type, age, and use - letting body condition be your guide.

Inactivity and overfeeding are probably a bigger concern this time of year, as they can lead to obesity and associated health problems in the spring.

· Regular hoof care - The same amount of attention should be paid to your horse's hooves, whether you are riding regularly or not.

This is often one aspect of horse care that is overlooked in the winter.

Horses' hooves are still growing in the winter months and they are walking on frozen, uneven ground, so timely and appropriate farrier work is important.

Also, remember to pick hooves regularly to remove dirt and debris.

Attention to these details will ensure that when spring arrives, your horses will be ready for the first trail ride.

Additional information on horse care and related topics are available from the Extension office and at on the Web at

So when you are brushing your horse, take a hot drink with you to the barn and enjoy your labor of love.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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