Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Horses in the Winter

 A few people commented on my last entry about not ever having lived in an area that gets a real winter, with ice and snow and other delightful weather.

I can tell you that not only do bad winter conditions pose a problem for everyday tasks (driving places, walking, maintaining power, etc), but they can also make horse management a real challenge. There are a lot of health care mistakes to avoid during the winter to ensure that your horse stays fit throughout the entire year.

Take for instance the blizzard that we just had, "Nemo". The main issues were:

-cold temperatures
-30 inches of heavy, wet snow in a short time period
-loss of power
-very high winds: up to 80mph gusts and 30mph sustained winds
-downed trees blocking roadways and falling on fence lines
-travel ban that prevented people from getting to the barn even after the roads were cleared

The cold temperatures posed a problem mostly for us humans. Combined with the lack of power, a 9 degree low over Saturday night made for a very chilly evening. All of our horses wear blankets/rugs in the cold weather, though, and I am pretty sure they were toasty warm in their stalls with loads of hay. Lucy has a lovely purple high-neck Weatherbeeta rug with 300g of fill for the real cold days (below 30 degrees). It is starting to show some wear and tear this year and I would love to get her another heavyweight horse rug for next year.

I would prefer a combo rug with a neck attachment. I love the combo rugs that allow you to detach the neck piece, which might be overkill if the temps are low but the horse is stabled indoors, without any adverse weather conditions like rain or snow to deal with. The high-neck blankets are a great compromise between the combo rugs and a regular-fit blanket because they will stop rain and snow from getting down the front of the blanket, but prevent the horse from overheating because their neck is able to dissipate any extra heat.

For temperatures above 30 but below 40, she wears a medium weight blanket. She has two MW blankets that both have 200g of fill: one Rider's International (Dover's brand) and one old Rambo that I got at a tack sale for $8 last year. She has a lightweight sheet, also a Rider's International, that she wears when it's above 40 degrees, and once it hits 50 degrees, I keep her naked. There are exceptions to these rules, like if it's in the mid 40's but very sunny, I will put her out naked so she can soak up the rays! She loves that, but those are the days I get to spend ages getting all the mud off of her after she's spent ages rolling around in it!

Every horse is different in terms of what blankets they wear at what temperatures. Some horses grow a fantastic winter coat and do not need to be blanketed. Unfortunately Lucy grows only a very flimsy winter coat, one that would never keep her warm enough in very cold weather, so I keep her blanketed. Some horse owners clip their horses so that they are easier to cool out after riding. Those horses need to be blanketed a bit heavier because they've lost that layer of natural protection from the cold. For a horse that is unclipped, another winter essential is a nice polar fleece or wool cooler to cool them out in so that they don't get a chill.

Our horses are stalled overnight in a barn with no insulation, and our town also prohibits heating elements inside barn structures, so these horses are dealing with cold air and cold water. The best we can do is to perform a night check to make sure everyone's water buckets are unfrozen and full. Some people like to give one bucket of warm water and one bucket of cold water. Surprisingly, warm water can freeze faster than cold water (called the Mpemba effect), so while some horses prefer to drink warm water in the winter, owners should not give them warm water with the intention of prolonging freezing.

Each horse has an electrically heated bucket outside in their paddocks, and when there is no issue with power, those work extremely well to keep water unfrozen and slightly warm. Lucy typically drinks 1/3 of both of her buckets in her stall in the winter (each bucket is 5 gallons, so 10 gallons together, and 1/3 of that is about 3.3 gallons…not a lot for a horse of Lucy's size) but when she's outside, she will drink up to half of her 16 gallon heated water bucket in a day. In warm weather, she drinks much better in general and I am always, always worried about impaction colic in the winter. To make myself feel better, she gets her PM beet pulp soaked until it is more mush than anything else. I am lucky that she is a little pig and will eat whatever I put in front of her face. Some horses will not eat soaked feed.

The loss of power over the weekend at the barn meant that outside water buckets froze and had to be replaced with fresh, unfrozen water right out of the spigot. Sometimes that happens and though it's a pain to do, it makes us really appreciate that the heated buckets work most of the time!

The other problem with such dry, cold weather is that leather goods like tack and boots, need a bit of extra TLC. I have tried to keep up with tack cleaning and conditioning this winter. It's a good habit to get into because well-cleaned and conditioned tack looks better, lasts longer, and has a smaller chance of failure. I love to use a product called Supple, and I also love the Stubben Hammanol that my saddle came with when I bought it.

Here in New England we deal with this type of weather every year, and though it is not ever convenient to have to trudge through almost three feet of snow to get out to the paddocks, or spend an entire day shoveling little paths around the barn, the snow sure is pretty and the horses love to play in it. By the time March rolls around, though, we are usually ready for some warmer weather! Then summer arrives and we get to deal with all the humidity and bugs. Luckily Equestrian Clearance has all the gear you would need to survive cold or warm temperatures, so check them out. They have some great deals on blankets, among other things.

Written in association with Equestrian Clearance


  1. Here in the Midwest, our winters can be harsh too, although it seems as if New England has been getting the harsh weather for the past couple years. Snow is pretty at first, but then it is just a pain. For all the reasons you listed above.
    Luckily, Shy does grows enough of a winter coat to keep 3 horses warm! And strangely enough, when she was in a stall last winter, she had a heated bucket that she refused to drink out of. She would rather bust through ice to drink cold water.

  2. All that snow makes for lovely photos! We lived for years in Northern Indiana and were subject to lake effect snow storms off Lake Michigan. Now that we live in Central Indiana, we get upset over a couple of inches. Funny how you adapt :)

  3. SO WEIRD you cant have heated buckets indoors! I dont know how we would survive the winter without them. GAH.

    AS for the turnout you want, I have it and LOVE it. I got it on sale last year and even though the neck is difficult to detach, it comes in handy when the windchill is ridiculous.

    Plus of snow is pictures! We got one day of snow then it melted because MO is bipolar. Most of the days are just too dang cold and windy. Oh the joys of the midwest.

  4. Lucy is always the toastiest of all :)

  5. Ha! Equestrian Clearance got to you too, huh? I was going to do it, but when I saw that they charge $47 US dollars to ship to the U.S. I changed my mind. I don't really keep up my blog anymore either so that was another reason.
    Seeing all that cold weather stuff brought flashbacks of growing up on our farm in Ohio, and reminded me of why I moved to Florida. It was 90 degrees here today, and I can't complain as I LOVE, LOVE the heat! March will be here soon though; hope you don't get another snowstorm like "Nemo"! I haven't ever heard a snowstorm named before, or have I missed something all these years? :D

  6. We have the full range of coats here. The Clydes are yaks, and Paj is like Lucy. He's never had a decent coat, so he has quite the wardrobe and a nervous owner (too hot? too cold? just right?). When we are frigid, he gets a turnout sheet with neck cover over the top of his heavy blanket.

  7. I've never heard of the Mpemba effect - who knew I've be learning science trivia on a horse blog!


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