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Managing equine during cold weather

Todd Steen, TFC Nutritionist 12/31/2018


Todd Steen, TFC Nutritionist
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Temperatures this fall have certainly been up and down with highs in the 70s and lows in the teens. But as winter sets in, changes to equine management practices relative to what has been done all summer and fall are important. Consider the following:


Assess your current feeding program. Realize that as temperatures drop, all animals require more energy (i.e. calories) to maintain body temperature. For the horse, receiving adequate energy via the diet is essential or energy stored in the body (i.e. fat) will be utilized to supply requirements. This will result in weight loss and poor body condition and can be especially problematic if the horse starts out the winter in poor condition.

The Henneke Body Condition Scoring System ranks a horse’s condition on a scale of 1 (poor) to 9 (extremely fat). Ideally, we would like to see horses no lower than a 5 going into winter. A 5 is described as “back is flat, no crease or ridge; ribs not visually distinguishable, but easily felt; fat around tailhead beginning to feel spongy; withers appear rounded over spine, shoulders and neck blend smoothly into body.”

Now is a good time to take a look at the feeding program so there is time to get your horse into the appropriate condition.


Adjusting the feeding program may mean feeding more of the current diet (hay and concentrate) or feeding higher-quality feeds (again, both hay and concentrate). Always start with forage. Normal, healthy horses can easily consume 1.5 to 2 percent of their body weight (16.5-22 lbs./day for an 1,100-lb. horse) as forage. Increasing the amount or quality of forage offered can offset many of the increased nutrient demands of winter. Several factors can affect hay quality, including field fertilization, plant species, maturity at harvest, harvesting techniques, and subsequent storage.

Check feeding directions on the concentrate (or grain) being fed. Compare the amount being offered to the nutritionists’ recommended feeding rate; there may be room for adjusting the amount of concentrate in the ration. If your feeding rate is at the upper end of the recommended rate, consider switching to a feed with a higher energy content.

It may also be necessary to feed problematic horses separately so as to ensure they’re consuming the intended amount of hay and/or concentrate. Visit with your local Co-op or contact us at TFC; we’re happy to help select the most appropriate feed for your situation.


The importance of water during hot, humid conditions is well known, but water intake is just as important during the winter months. Check and monitor automatic waterers and water tanks. Make sure they’re clean and functioning properly.

Among other things, water helps to maintain proper gut motility. Reductions in water intake, whether from an inadequate supply or unclean conditions, have been implicated in impaction colic, particularly when dry hay makes up a substantial part of the diet (as it does in the winter).

Other Management Practices

Consider the availability and quality of shelter. Shorter days mean you’ll likely be doing chores or doctoring wounds after dark. Do you have adequate lighting? If your horses are going to spend time indoors, is your ventilation adequate to prevent respiratory issues?

While grass growth has slowed for the year, pastures should still be considered as late fall is an ideal time to apply herbicides and fertilizer. Weeds compete for the same nutrients as the desirable species in our pastures, so eliminating them will result in less competition and stronger stands of grass.

Even though fall fertilizer application may not significantly improve yield, it can help build stronger root systems and allow for quicker green-up and more vigorous growth in the spring. Visit with your local Co-op; they can help with soil sampling, fertilization, herbicide recommendations, and application.

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