Horses can live outside year round, but winter care requires feed modifications, attention to detail, mud/ice management and shelter from the elements.
Winter Feed & Mash
The bulk of the horse's diet should always consist of forage. Fiber digestion is what keeps your horse warm. So it is important that your horse has adequate forage to produce body heat from digestion. A normal 1,000 pound horse usually consumes about 20lbs. of hay per day. But in cold weather, that same horse might need 25-30lbs. of hay per day to stay warm. You can also provide your horses with a warm bran mash.
Wheat bran is a fluffy, low-density feed similar in nutritional content to oats. It's half the density of corn or wheat and relatively high in vitamins. Bran mashes have often been provided to horses in order to increase their water intake during cold weather and prevent colic. Or simply, to give horses a warm, comforting treat.
There are a variety of recipes used. Most involve mixing warm water, a tablespoon of salt and roughly 4-8 cups of bran until it is well saturated. The mixture should cling together when you squeeze it. If you can squeeze water out of it, then it’s too wet and more bran should be added.
Once the desired consistency has been reached, any number of ingredients can be added. Steamed oats, molasses, flaxseed, chopped carrots, sliced apples or any combination can increase nutritional value of the mash & make it more appealing to the horse. Pelleted feeds should not added, as they make the mash “mushy”.
Many veterinarians recommend providing horses with a bran mash once a week during cold winter months. Nutritionists point out that you should not feed bran mash too often, as horses require more calcium than phosphorous in their feed and wheat bran contains 10 times as much phosphorous as calcium. If you wish to correct the calcium/phosphorous ratio, some horse owners mix alfalfa cubes into their bran mash.
Remember that bran mash once a week is a good treat for your horse, but avoid feeding a mash daily. If you have questions regarding bran mashes, talk to your local equine extension nutritionist or veterinarian.
Water & Salt
Increased consumption can cause impaction if your horse isn't drinking enough. Check the horse's water source twice daily in order to remove ice. Or you can provide a safe tank or bucket heater. Water consumption typically increases if the water is kept free of ice.
Continue providing free choice access to a trace mineral salt block through the winter, or supplement your horse's feed with a small amount of salt, as these both increase water consumption.
Attention to Detail
If you ride or work you horse in winter months, plan additional time for proper care both before and after rides. Bits should be warmed prior to insertion in the horse's mouth. Wait until the bit is no longer cold to the touch before asking your horse to accept it.
Horses that sweat during winter rides need to be dried out completely. A thick winter coat can hold moisture for a long time and drying can be a time consuming task. Horses can be dried by rubbing with a towel, feeding hay, or by keeping the horse under cover and applying a water-wicking cooler. Once the horse is dry, fluff up their hair before turn out, which will aid the insulating effectiveness of their coat.
It is common to develop mud around feeders, waterers, and gates, but your horse can generally escape these muddy areas if there is adequate space in the field. You might consider using rocks able to withstand traffic and allow for drainage where you feed and water your animals to help prevent mud and erosion. Horses and other livestock can become mired in especially muddy areas.
It is important to check your horse's legs on a regular basis in order to remove excess mud to avoid fungal and bacterial infections. Ice chunks can also build up in your horse's hooves making them walk on their toes, which is not good for their tendons, ligaments or muscles. Ice chunks need to be removed from your horse's hooves whenever they appear. Icy areas in and around barns and fields can be unusually slick and cause accidents leading to injuries. Ice prone areas should be closely monitored and sprinkled with sand, or fenced off to prevent slippage.
If there are any extremely muddy or icy areas in your field, you might just want to try fencing them off from the rest of the pasture.
Horses need shelter from the elements. Trees and low places act as a natural wind barrier and can provide some protection from precipitation. A three-sided constructed shelter provides the best protection from winter precipitation. It is important to ensure that your shelter offers adequate space for your animals, allowing for their natural behavior and accommodating the hierarchy so that even the lowest horse in the pecking order can benefit from the shelter. In larger herds, more than one shelter might be required.
Many horse owners choose to blanket their horses during the winter months. A horse living outside that doesn't grow a thick winter coat could benefit from a blanket especially during cold snaps or inclement weather. Additionally horses that don't have access to man-made shelter will benefit from a proper turnout blanket during inclement weather.
For more information specific to winter horse management contact your local veterinarian.