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Winter horsekeeping

draft horse in snow

 Keeping your horse healthy in the winter takes on a different tone than the summer months. Keep in mind that horses have a higher tolerance of cold than us humans and that most horses' basic needs are fairly easily met. Standing in cold water or snow won't make his feet cold to him, either. Their anatomy is such that it shunts blood flow when necessary and the hoof stays the same minimum temperature inside all the time.
   Most horses do just fine with a simple run-in shed, as long as there is ample room for everyone in the herd to get in when the weather and their desire calls for it. A windbreak is a must, if there is no shed available, and most of the time, horses don't actually go in a shed, even in rain; proof enough of how well their hair insulates them. If you see snow on their backs-that's more proof, as the snow melts if the coat isn't thick enough to insulate them,so you don't have to feel sorry for them when they are snow covered-they are warm under all that.
    Some lighter breeds (TB and Arabians for example) may not have much winter hair, or even older horses or those that are body clipped, and need blankets. Blanketing a horse takes more work and expense. The blanket must fit properly or it will rub sores on the horse, it must be cleaned occasionally, and the horse still needs it removed for grooming. Also, several different blankets should be used because as the weather changes, so do their needs. Heavy blankets on warm days make for sweaty damp horses that can later be chilled as the day cools back down. Too light of a blanket and it can make the horse colder than if he's naked-blankets hold down the hair that would normally stand up to trap air against the skin, and a light blanket may just prevent that natural function without replacing the insulation value. If your horse has an adequate hair coat, access to shelter, and enough hay to munch, it's much healthier for him to go without blankets and less trouble for you.
    Access to water is still important, even though they tend to drink less in winter, they still need about 5-10 gallons a day; it is still vital for preventing colic and dehydration. Busting the ice in troughs or providing slightly heated (room temp) water can entice some to drink more, and offering bran mashes or soaked feeds will lessen the amount of actual drinking needed and are a good way to ensure adequate water intake.
    Horses burn more calories to keep warm. Grain, however is a poor heater for horses. It is easily digested and while it does provide calories, it's not as satisfying to them as hay. Stemmy hay or straw is more fibrous and actually produces heat when it ferments in the gut, which burns fewer calories for warmth, and keeps the bowels moving regularly.  If you feed lower nutrition hay, you can feed more, which I recommend in the cold months. The eating is also entertainment and prevents boredom vices like cribbing or wood chewing, and low quality (not moldy or rotten) hay lessens the likelyhood of laminitis or colic from excess nutrient or sugar intake. If you feed hay in "meals" instead of free choice, try to offer it several times a day instead of once, so they get a more consistent intake instead of a feast for 2 hours and starve for 20 cycle that could set him up for founder and colic, not to mention BOREDOM!
    Excercise is still important. Many people put out round bales and the horses simply stand around eating, which is certainly better than not getting enough hay to eat. However, if you can, it is better to spread it out in piles to encourage head down eating (in racks and hay bales they horse holds their heads in funny angles and can get seeds and dust in they eyes and nose) to drain nasal passages and cut down on respiratory problems. Plus, multiple piles limits herd competition for feed, which can translate into fewer injuries,  and gets them a little more exercise. Plus, the area around round bales quickly becomes a thrush heaven. Exercise also helps to keep the horses warm.
    I do not recommend locking a horse up in a stall. In a pasture they can move, find the shelter they prefer, and hang out with buddies and generally just be horses. The movement keeps them limber and in better shape for when you do want to ride, and keeps other health issues in check. Plus, the head down grazing gives them a boost in lung health, as well.  If you must stall your horse,  just try to provide as much head down hay eating as possible, and a neighbor he can see and an open top door to stick his head out and get some fresh air. Do try to turn him out as often as you can. Riding is not the same as liberty exercise and freedom does wonders for their minds. 

Heated Stock Tank

Snow on hairy pony

So, just to rehash it all- winter care is about providing enough shelter, hay/pasture, water and opportunity to exercise to keep your horse comfortable.

Don't forget to clean his feet and a quick gromming now and then to check for wounds or any other signs of trouble.