T.R.E.E.S. Traveller's Rest Equine Elders Sanctuary

Wintering Wisely


Under most circumstances harsh winters are more uncomfortable for horse owners than for the horses themselves.  When living with seniors, though, it is prudent to practice a little more diligence in snow and ice season.  We hope you find these tips useful (and that you will share with us any others you've found helpful in wintering your elders wisely!)

  • Water - water, water, water! Please remember that horses consuming large amounts of hay will need to drink more water than they do when on pasture.   The moisture content of pasture grass is approximately 65-75%, while that of hay is only 8-10%.

It is essential that the water source be kept as free of ice as possible.  Not all horses will break through a layer of ice to access the water below.  Yes, "wild" horses learn to do that as they grow up around other  horses that know outdoor survival techniques.  Your horse, however, is not a "wild" creature and may not know how to get to the water under that hard surface. There are several ways to deal with icy water:

  • One method is to break through and remove ice from the surface.  If the ice is merely a thin "skin," a kitchen strainer works fine on small tanks and buckets.  Thicker ice or a larger tank requires a larger removal tool. Find an old feed or water bucket and use a 3/4 inch drill bit to drill holes all over the bucket, making your own big strainer.  After breaking the ice up with a hammer, simply dip the ice pieces out of the tank.  CAUTION:  Keep the bucket over the tank until the water drains out!  (You will probably not make that mistake twice unless you enjoy working in wet clothes!)  Pile the ice pieces where the horse will not have to walk over them to approach the tank.  Check tanks and buckets for ice several times during the day. 

  • A second option is to use tank or bucket heaters to keep the water temperature above freezing. There are several types available.  Whichever type you choose, remember to keep all electrical cords out of reach of the horses. In addition, please use outlets safely....do not prop open waterproof covers on outdoor outlets, allowing water into the circuit. 

  • If your horses' normal water source is a natural source, such as a pond or stream, consider using a tank which is more easily maintained in frigid temperatures. 

Tank or bucket location is another important thing to consider.  Winter means less algae growth, but water tanks still must be cleaned regularly. Less algae growth means little when Toothless Wonders drop wads of hay into the water and the heater brews a strong hay tea. When relocating a tank for the winter, be sure to consider drainage in the new site.  If you dump a tank for cleaning and the water freezes before  it drains away or soaks into frozen ground, the horses may be hesitant to walk up to the tank. 

  • Hay - Roughage is an essential ingredient in any horse's diet, playing a very important role in maintaining gastrointestinal health.  During the winter, hay must be provided to replace pasture grass that has gone dormant.  But, winter hay is more than just a replacement for grass. Metabolizing hay produces more body heat in the horse than does the metabolism of grains and other concentrates.  When the outdoor temperatures drop lower, more hay will be consumed in most cases. 

Dentally challenged seniors need special consideration when pasture is unavailable.  Some marginally toothed horses can chew tender grass shoots but are unable to eat chewy, stemmy hay.  In such cases, a commercial chopped forage may work.  Wetting the forage may further aid in swallowing, but it also may create problems of its own. Wet forage will freeze into a solid block in cold temperatures, so serving sizes must be no larger than the horse can eat at one "sitting."  A change in hay may make a difference in how well the horse can eat.  A very leafy second or third cutting hay can sometimes be chewed when a stemmy first cutting will be wadded and spit out.


A final word on hay is QUALITY.  Don't skimp on quality when it comes to this very important ingredient in gut health, nutrition and overall well-being.  It was once thought that most winter colic episodes were caused by insufficient water intake.  Researchers recently added poor quality roughage to the list of major culprits. When you feed poor quality hay to a horse that cannot chew well in the best of circumstances, and that may have a less than efficient digestive tract, you are tempting fate.  Please don't take that risk.

  • Feed - Some younger horses are able to maintain good health and weight on forages (grass and hay) alone.  That is not the case, however, for most senior horses, especially those with dental trouble.  Most elders are fed a senior feed throughout the year.  Most will also need larger amounts of feed in winter since maintaining normal body temperature requires more calories than are needed in warm weather.  Some will need a larger increase, in proportion to summer rations, than others.  Monitor the horse's weight closely and make adjustments accordingly.  Because winter coats often hide subtle changes in body condition, feel for changes over the ribs, hips, withers and shoulders rather than depending on general appearance. When feed intake must be increased significantly for the winter, consider adding another meal to the daily routine rather than trying to feed enormous amounts less often.  If the horse is not already eating his senior ration as a mash, consider soaking.  Soaking is yet another way to add to overall water intake.

  • Shelter - Rainproof, windproof shelter is important for domestic horses' well-being in winter.  Trees, especially trees with no leaves, just won't do the trick. Most horses can tolerate rain.  Most horses can tolerate moderate wind.  But a wet horse in a cold wind can lose body heat at an alarming rate.  This is especially true of elders who may not be able to regulate their body temperatures as efficiently as younger horses. Free access to a three sided shed or the interior of a safe barn is ideal.  Keeping the horse in a stall during bad weather is another option, but the ability to move about in a shed will help keep body temperatures up.  A blanket may be useful during times of confinement when lower activity levels mean less internal heat production. (Remember, though, that prolonged confinement can contribute to respiratory problems and decreased gut motility.)

  • Footing - Icy ground can be a winter nightmare for both you and your horse.  First and foremost, be extremely careful and keep yourself safe.  If you take a bad spill, not only might you be seriously injured, but you will also not be able to care for the horses, and  everybody will suffer.

No matter how careful you are, you will likely end up with ice in the area of a water tank.  One way to combat this problem is to move the tank to a well drained area.  If you are in a climate where the daytime temperatures routinely climb above the freezing point, empty and clean tanks early in the day.  Doing so will allow water to drain away or dry somewhat before the temperature drops again that night.


If there is no way to avoid ice accumulation in certain areas, sprinkle the area with sand, fine gravel, old bedding or anything else that will help provide traction.  One thing to avoid is cat litter.  Clay cat litter will absorb a certain amount of moisture, then, especially in high traffic areas, begins to break down into a slimy clay layer that makes things worse rather than better.


If you must lead a horse over icy ground, give him his head, plenty of loose lead, and let him choose his own path. Remember that elders are less agile than they once were and may need a little more time to get where you are asking them to go.


Finally, whether walking on snow, ice or mud, maintaining balance on slippery ground is hard work. This is especially true in horses that have pre-existing unsoundnesses such as arthritis.  They will want to rest more often and you may need to speak with your vet about adjustments in pain management until the footing improves.

  • Snowballs! - No, not the kind you throw at your brother.  The kind that form on the bottom of horses' feet.  The shape and health of a horses' feet and hooves, and the texture of the snow, are big factors in how much of a problem he will have with snow accumulation.  Check you horses' feet often any time there is snow on the ground.  Some horses gather so much snow in their feet that their hooves do not touch the ground at all.  Under certain conditions, the weight of the horse will compress the snow into an ice ball, making a dangerous situation a very dangerous situation.  Snowballs will usually pop right out of the foot with a hoof pick.  To prevent snow accumulation, some horse owners coat the soles with petroleum jelly, or cooking spray.  Results sound mixed.  Try it and see what happens, but do NOT use anything that will make the hoof itself more slippery. (NOTE: In general, shod horses will have a greater tendency to pick up snowballs than barefoot horses.)

  • Blanketing - As with younger horses, elders vary greatly in the need for a blanket.  Don't be tempted to use a blanket based solely on "old age."  Many equine elders grow very generous winter coats.  Keeping them clean and fluffy will ensure the coats maintain maximum insulating capabilities.  Monitor for shivering.  A horse can literally lose several pounds during a night of shivering.  When blanketing is required, avoid the temptation to put the blanket on and leave it on until spring.   Use it only when needed.  If the horse is one with a heavy coat, one or two warm days can cause sweating under the blanket, and lead to additional problems.

  • Getting snowed upon - If you step outside one morning and see four inches of snow perched on your horses back, don't panic.  The fact that the snow is not melting proves that the horse's coat is an efficient layer of insulation between his body heat and the layer of snow.  It is a good idea, though, to brush the snow off before the temperature rises above freezing.  Once the snow begins to melt, it will make the horse wet.  Wet + cold = NOT a Good Thing.

  • Plan ahead -- With today's weather forecasting technology, we usually know of a winter storm well before it arrives.  Keep feed, hay and bedding well stocked.  Do not run out just before a storm and buy just enough to get you through the storm's predicted lifespan.  First, the storm may last longer than expected.  Second, maybe (key word is "maybe") you can get to the feed store the moment the snow stops falling, but can the feed distributor get there?  If you depend on well water and don't have a generator, fill your water tanks to the brim in case of a power outage.  Fill extra tanks and buckets if you have them.  (Keep the buckets in the house to prevent freezing.)


  • Heat - Heat lamps and space heaters in the barn.   DON'T.  


  • Keep yourself safe -- Finally in our list of winter tips:  Take care of yourself.  Use caution on icy ground.  Wear appropriate clothing and footwear.  Don't risk hypothermia or frostbite, even if you'll "only be out there a minute or two." 

And......chin up!  Spring will be here soon!



NOTE:  Material presented by Traveller's Rest Equine Elders Sanctuary on equineelders.org or in any other manner is for information purposes only.  It is in no way intended to replace the services or advice of your veterinarian.