Winter welfare tips

Winter turnout

World Horse Welfare cares for around 300 horses at any one time across our four UK Rescue and Rehoming Centres. Even at our most northern centre, Belwade Farm in Aberdeenshire, horses are only rugged if they are clipped, particularly elderly, underweight or thin-skinned.

Deputy Chief Executive Tony Tyler says: "The majority of horses can cope very well in cold weather as long as natural or man-made shelter is provided from the rain and wind. The digestion of fibre such as hay or haylage generates heat which keeps them warm from the inside out and native ponies grow their very own rugs so shouldn't need to wear one at all!"

Winter Health and Welfare

It is essential for owners to continuously monitor their horse’s health and welfare throughout the year and regardless of the season it is important that all farriery, veterinary and dental care is kept up-to-date. During winter, owners need to be mindful of the weather and consider their horse’s age, breed, size, diet, coat (clipped/not clipped) and what type of shelter is available.

It is important to remember that all horses, ponies and donkeys need to be treated as individuals. They may all have similar needs but how best to care for them as the seasons change, such as whether to rug or provide supplementary feed, should be based on the situation of each animal, not what the one next door is receiving. It is a good idea to check your horse regularly for any changes in bodyweight by using a combination of a weighbridge or tape and assessing its body condition score. You may be riding less or increasing the amount of time that your horse is stabled, which means that it is burning fewer calories. Equally, if you find your horse is dropping weight you may need to increase the calorific value of their forage, introduce supplementary feeding or think about rugging them.

Weather and temperature

When the temperatures begin to drop we need to remember that just because we may feel cold, this doesn’t necessarily mean our horses will also be feeling cold. The ambient temperature range that a healthy adult horse will feel comfortable in and in which they can regulate their own body temperature is between 5 and 25 degrees Celsius. When the temperature drops below 5 degrees Celsius horses need to find ways to warm themselves up which they do by increasing their metabolic rate, seeking shelter, reducing the blood flow to the limbs (to reduce heat loss) and if it gets very cold they will shiver. Don’t use your horse’s legs, ears or face to judge how cold they are, instead feel across their neck, withers and body.

Horses are very adaptable to changes in temperature and use their food as a source of heating. Younger and older animals, as well as those that are clipped or with little body fat, will need to use more energy to keep warm so owners may need to provide additional forage and rug clipped or thinner horses sooner than those with a full coat or with a body condition score of more than two. Keep a close eye on your horse’s legs too. In deep and prolonged mud and wet ground, including snow, their legs are not able to fully dry off, which can cause skin conditions.

Feeding and watering

Horses produce heat through digestion of fibre and so they should have ad-lib access to good quality forage (grass, hay or haylage) throughout the colder months. If your grazing is sparse or covered by snow put some hay out to compensate. Remember to introduce any change in your horse’s diet gradually, over a period of at least a week, as any sudden changes may cause problems.

Even if you are trying to get your horse to lose some weight you should still provide good quality, but low calorie forage (try soaking your normal hay or mixing in straw) and use a mixture of systems such as multiple small-holed hay-nets, loose hay and hay-troughs around their field or stable to slow down the rate of food intake. Be prepared by ordering your hay supply ahead of time and always have plenty in reserve in case there is a delay with your next hay delivery.

Make sure fresh water is always available, and remember in freezing conditions you may need to check their water trough or bucket two or three times a day to break any ice.

Stabling, shelters and fields

In winter, you may find that your horse spends more time inside due to wet or frozen conditions outside. Horses often get colder when inside as they can’t move around as much, especially if the stable is made of brick or concrete. Make sure all bedding is kept clean and dry, and use a rug if you think your horse is cold.

All horses when out at grass will need constant access to shelter, either natural such as a copse of trees or a thick hedge-row, or a man-made field shelter.  Even if you think your horse doesn’t use it, on a cold, windy day they will naturally seek a wind-break.  Remember that donkeys need access to a fully waterproof shelter – three sides, a sloping roof and a dry ground area (ideally concreted with bedding).

Rugging

Knowing when to rug and which weight of rug to use is a confusing topic and isn’t without risk. Inappropriate rugging can cause rubbing and injury, as well as increasing the risk of skin conditions. The majority of fit and healthy horses will grow a think winter coat as the temperature drops and will be able to go through the winter without a rug as long as they have access to ad-lib forage and shelter. If your horse is clipped then you will need to use a rug to prevent weight loss and keep your horse comfortable if temperatures fall below 5 degrees Celsius. Similarly if your horse has little body fat (a body condition score of less than two) speak to your vet about their health and welfare, and use a rug if temperatures drop.

If your horse has to be rugged, make sure that the rugs fits them and always have a spare one available so you can swap them if one gets very wet. It's important to remove and re-adjust rugs every day so you can check your horse thoroughly.

Try to allow rugged horses time during the day to get fresh air and the sun on their backs – don’t keep them rugged 24/7. Be careful not to over-rug your horse as they may sweat and become uncomfortable.

Mud, snow and ice

In deep and prolonged snow or mud, your horse’s legs are not able to fully dry off, which can cause skin conditions. Make sure you thoroughly check their legs and hooves daily for signs of disease or infection. Apply petroleum jelly to the underneath of the horse's hooves – particularly during exercise – to prevent snow balling up. Remember to remove it all afterwards as it can be a breeding ground for bacteria in warmer weather.

When snow melts, the ground will be soft and easy to churn up. To avoid injury and mud fever, and limit damage to the land, try moving your horse to different fields to graze. Alternatively, you could change the point at which you enter the field so that you don't disturb the same area repeatedly, move water troughs regularly if possible and cover particularly muddy areas with straw or sand.

Top ten tips for winter

  • Treat each horse, pony or donkey as an individual
  • Check your horse regularly for any changes in bodyweight by using a weighbridge or tape and assessing its body condition score
  • Provide ad-lib access to good quality forage during cold weather (below 5 degrees)
  • If your horse is overweight, use a mixture of systems to vary the way your horse accesses forage to slow down consumption rate whilst ensuring ad-lib access
  • Make sure your horse has access to a shelter – either natural or man-made – and remember donkeys need a fully waterproof shelter 
  • Don’t rug horses based on how cold you are, but whether they actually need to be rugged – be careful not to over-rug your horse as it could lead to discomfort, weight gain or development of skin conditions
  • If you do need to rug your horse, use a rug that fits properly and have a spare in case one gets wet
  • Keep a close eye on your horse’s legs and coat for early signs of mud fever or other skin conditions
  • Make sure fresh water is always available, and remember in freezing conditions you may need to check the water trough or bucket two or three times a day to break any ice
  • Have some sand available to use on icy paths

These tips are general guidelines only  each horse has different requirements. If you have any questions, please contact the World Horse Welfare Advice Line on 01953 497238.