Your guide to horse health in winter months

Horses in good health with adequate nutrition are well equipped to deal with wind, cold and even snow, writes Wendy Conlon, equine specialist.


Stables must have adequate ventilation to avoid accumulation of ammonia from urine, endotoxins from manure, and dust and mould from forage and bedding as these all negatively affect the respiratory system. Turn horses out or move to another stable when cleaning stables to decrease exposure to particles of moulds, dust and endotoxins.


Even in the worst winter days, cold, fresh air is desirable and comfortable for horses. Full time turnout, or as much as is possible, is the healthiest way for a horse to live once adequate shelter is available. Besides benefiting musculoskeletal and mental health, exercise is also important to maintain intestinal mobility.

Shelter can be a good non-deciduous hedge; or a man-made shelter to protect from prevailing winds. In frosty weather, avoid turnout of regularly stabled horses.


For horses with full coats, rugs are usually not necessary. Horses have an innate ability to withstand cold and wind with no more than a windbreak. Rugs tend to compress woolly coats, which compromises their insulating properties. For horses that have poor body condition, are prone to weight loss or are clipped, these all should wear rugs. Rugs should be removed regularly to inspect the condition of the horse.

Body condition and nutrition

Assessing body weight and body condition regularly over the winter period is critical. Weigh tapes offer a good guide and will assist you to monitor if condition is being gained or lost. It is also recommended to assess body condition through palpation of the horse (especially ribs and spine) and visual assessment.

Horses living out and trying to keep warm burn calories. To maintain body condition, they need access to high-quality forage (hay/ haylage) and the recommended amount of suitable hard feed and/or adding extra oil to the ration. The amount and type of hard feed will depend on a body weight, body condition and work load.

Additional calories do help to keep a horse warm but it is best to increase calories by offering more good-quality forage as the first option over bag feed, as fermentation of forage in the hindgut generates internal warmth and doesn’t create a carbohydrate overload that could cause laminitis.

Horses that maintain body condition well may do very well on a diet of forage, a small quantity of straight such as oats, and a balancer product. An animal that requires high-calorie intake to maintain or add condition will require a more energy-dense diet and perhaps oil supplementation.

Poor doers also benefit from being fed several small meals (no more than 2kg per meal for a 500kg horse). It is key to check water sources regularly and ensure they are clean and not frozen over. Water intake is vital in winter to maintain hydration and prevent impaction oil.

Feet and teeth

Feet and legs should be cared for also. With risk of thrush (if stabled); stone bruises; abscesses and mud fever at this time of year particularly for horses in muddy conditions.

Horses should have an annual dental check, those under three, two checks per year. Sharp edges, hooks or dental disease will prevent a horse from gaining maximum benefit from the diet. Most horses need dental work and floating (rasping) once or twice a year.

Parasite control

The recommendation these days is to decrease worming frequency, move away from regular treatments and treat on the basis of parasite burden measured with the assistance of faecal egg counts and Elisa blood test (tapeworm) to reduce the risk of resistance to chemical products. Consult with your vet about using faecal egg count tests to tailor a programme to your farm. Smart pasture management aids significantly in reducing parasite burden.


Horses thrive best when they can move around and breathe fresh air, regardless of the season. Movement helps keep musculoskeletal tissues healthy and keeps the digestive tract mobile and the respiratory tract healthy. Taking a few simple precautions in addition to this basic approach can help your horse weather winter safely.


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