It’s that time of year again when the days get shorter, the air gets colder and we want to snuggle up and watch Netflix shows. But we’re horse owners, and that means a certain level of commitment to the great outdoors no matter the weather.

Whether you ride or not during the frigid temps, your horse or pony will benefit from some extra TLC to keep it healthy and happy throughout the winter. Here are some of the main issues that horse owners come across during the cold weather, and some of our favorite tips for managing them.

Avoiding Weight Loss

Horses burn calories during the winter just regulating their body temperature to keep warm. Feeding extra calories can help offset any winter weight loss. Upping their hay 1-4 flakes is an easy way to add calories without increasing excess energy. You can also add other non-grain supplements to their feed such as rice bran and beet pulp to help put on weight even in horses who are hard keepers  while not making your horse too “high” to ride. This is important if you’re not riding or training as much or as intensely over the winter.

Many horse owners and equine nutritionists also recommend omega oils such as Camelina to help horses gain weight. Omegas have also been promoted as reducing inflammation in joints and giving horses a healthier, shinier coat and thicker manes and tails.

Preventing Joint Stiffness

Like humans, winter’s cold and damp weather can affect joints and cause stiffness in older horses, or animals with an old injury. Keeping active can help reduce stiffness and pain. Regular turnout is key, but since that can be hit-and-miss due to ice, etc., riding, lungeing or being hand-walked on good footing are all great options. Beyond movement there are also joint supplements that your vet can recommend which are added to feed or injected. Massage, thermal blankets and liniments can also help relieve joint pain and muscle stiffness.

Blanketing … or not?

Do horses need to be blanketed? It’s a common and reasonable question. But there is no simple answer, other than to say “it depends.” Unclipped, blanketed or unblanketed horses can, and do, live outside year-round in Canada and thrive as long as they have available shelter, fresh water and plenty of hay. This is because horses can thermoregulate, meaning keep their body temperature in a normal range. If your horse is healthy with a thick winter coat and you don’t ride during the winter, except for perhaps a light hack now and then, then you probably can go without. But if you clip your horse, ride and train the same as you do during warmer month, or if your horse is very young or older, then blanketing is a must.

On those days that are too cold to ride, try a spa day for your horse, set up a photo shoot for social media, learn equine massage, teach some tricks.

If you are opting for blankets then you must also consider the fill and denier. As we published in our blanketing guide in 2020, fill refers to the amount of stuffing in the blanket and manufacturers measure this in grams. A typical rain sheet has no fill or 0g. Medium blankets range from 150-225g and heavyweight blankets range from 250-370g and anything over that is considered a ultra or mega heavyweight.

Denier refers to the strength or density of the nylon fabric which will tell you how durable and water-resistant it is. This varies from blanket to blanket and you’ll see 600D to 1200D; the higher the number, the more dense the fibre and more durable the blanket. So a low denier for stable or show is fine, but if your horse is living outdoors and has boisterous pasture mates, then you want the higher density for protection and longevity.

For more blanketing know-how we also love Equine Guelph’s online blanketing tool.

A horse's legs in the snow.

Talk to your farrier about how to deal with winter woes like traction, abscesses, snowballing and thrush. (Petra/Pixabay)

Hoof Care Considerations

The old adage “no hoof, no horse” certainly remains an honest assessment! And winter can wreak havoc on hooves, causing abscesses, snowballing, bruising, and thrush.

Your farrier is your first line of defense in hoof care. Snowballing, where snow gets packed into the shod hoof, causing the horse to be off balance, straining ligaments, tendons and joints, is a common problem. While you can opt to remove shoes, you must do this before the ground freezes to prevent bruising. Or your blacksmith can add snow pads or other such paddings to prevent snow from packing into the hoof.

Your farrier can help locate and drain an abscess (pus pocket that causes acute lameness), which is another common issue that affects horses year-round. Thrush is another all-season issue but the added dampness and wet of winter can make it more common. Always ensure your horse’s stall is clean and dry, and that the animal isn’t standing in wet, muddy ground in its paddock for extended periods of time. The same steps that prevent thrush also help prevent soft hoof walls and thin soles, which can contribute to bruising as well.

If you need to know more about hoof care, speak to your farrier and read this piece from our sister magazine Horse Sport.

Mental Health for Horses

Even horses get the blues, especially when having to work in an indoor arena for months. Varying your routine can help offset boredom and prevent your horse from getting “arena sour.” Things like riding with a friend is good for you and your horse because it’s social. Doing groundwork or work with poles and cavaletti can be fun activities.

On those days that are too cold to ride, try a spa day for your horse, set up a photo shoot for social media, learn equine massage, teach some tricks. Anything you can do to vary your barn time will boost your mood – and your horse’s.

Winter can feel endless, but you can make the most of it by spending quality time with your horse and giving him or her the extra care they need to be sound, fit and happy for years to come.