Buzz from the Barn: Natural Horse Health in Winter

By Dr. Madalyn Ward, How to have a Healthy Happy Horse!

When winter weather hits our natural human tendency is to do what we can to protect our horses from the cold, damp, and wind. This is a wonderful nurturing and protective instinct, and at the same time I frequently see people overdoing that protection, often at the expense of their horse’s health.

This may seem a strange idea, but the fact is that our horses can actually be healthier if allowed to adapt to winter weather as naturally as possible. A horse’s natural immune response and coping mechanisms can keep him healthier than artificial heaters and blankets, or excess grain.

The Natural Horse Model
There is no doubt, of course, that our horses do need more support of certain kinds during winter weather. However, if we consider wild horses (or horses that simply live more naturally in a pasture setting) we see that equines are remarkably adaptable.

For instance, wild horses normally drop weight during the winter. This is a normal response to cold weather, and allows them to regain weight in the spring by feasting on new grasses without tipping into obesity. I believe that some of the metabolic conditions I see cropping up in the horse population are due to overfeeding and over-blanketing during the winter. We should not allow our horses to become too thin, but
keeping them pudgy during the winter doesn’t help either.

In addition, horses living in a natural environment have minimal shelter. They are also not fed additional grain, though they may spend more time eating forage. They are not groomed to shiny perfection. And yet these horses manage to survive quite well during the winter season.

All of this makes sense from a horse health point of view. Horses eating forage, like hay and grasses, stay warmer because digestion of hay, which takes place in the hind gut, keeps them warm. On the other hand, grain simply adds fat but does not necessarily make the horse feel warmer. Also, horses kept in natural environments use the dirt in
their hair coats as insulation, reducing the need for as much shelter and blanketing. All of these natural behaviors keep the horse healthy in winter without the need for artificial intervention.

Tips for Horse Health in Winter
Your horse, of course, isn’t a wild horse so it isn’t reasonable to ask him to endure the winter without extra help. However, if you want to mimic the natural horse model to keep your horse healthiest this winter, follow these tips:

1. Blanket your horse only when he is shivering or exposed to soaking rain. Otherwise allow him to grow a natural winter coat. Avoid removing all the dirt from his coat if possible, since dirt insulates your horse from the cold.

2. Provide shelter but not a cocoon. Horses do need protection from the wind and damp during the winter, but they don’t need to be wrapped in a cocoon. Minimum shelter requirements for a horse include a roof plus side walls that block the winter wind. At the same time, you want to ensure your shelter has enough ventilation that the air is not stifling inside the shelter.

3. Feed more hay not grain. Offering your horse plenty of hay not only keeps him warmer but occupies his time. Free choice hay is a good option as long as your horse does not suffer from a metabolic condition. Your horse stays warm as long as he is eating forage.

4. Support your horse’s immune system. Your horse can better adapt to winter weather (especially cold snaps and sudden changes in weather) if you support his immune system. I suggest feeding:

– Probiotics: These keep your horse’s gut functioning in severe weather or when the weather changes suddenly. I use acidophilus and bifidus.

– Citrus C/Q: This supplement is high in vitamin C and rutin, and will support your horse’s immune system and muscular/joint system in severe weather.

– Ani-motion: If your horse is older or tends to become sore and stiff in cold weather, this supplement contains Devils’ Claw and Yucca, both of which will keep your horse moving freely.

Natural Horse Health is Not Tough Love
In advocating a natural lifestyle for your horse this winter I am not suggesting that your horse suffer or that you practice “tough love.” You should offer blankets, shelter, extra hay, and immune support to your horse this winter. Just don’t overdo the coddling if you want your horse to develop and maintain a strong and healthy body. He will thank you for it in the long run!

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Unless otherwise attributed, all material is written and edited by Madalyn Ward, DVM. Copyright (c) 2021 and Madalyn Ward, DVM. All rights reserved.

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