Horse and rider snow scenes

6 Important winter tips for horse owners

When it is cold and snowing, there are some important things to keep in mind in the stable and when handling horses. Here we share some useful tips and advice for horse owners this winter!

This article was written by a FirstVet vet


Did you know that FirstVet offers video calls with experienced, UK registered vets? You can get a consultation within 30 minutes by downloading the FirstVet app for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play.


✓ Included free as part of many pet insurance policies
✓ Help, treatment and if you need it, a referral to your local vet
✓ Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year


1. Use the right weight of rug

One option for our native breeds is to allow fit and healthy horses over-winter without a rug. A winter coat provides natural warmth and protection with waterproofing oils. A horse or pony’s weight should fluctuate during the year; winter is the normal way for them to use the calories that were stored during the summer.

Despite some breeds being good at managing in the cold weather, for others they can get really chilly during winter days. Clipped horses and many non-native breeds will need a thick winter rug outdoors, and likely indoors too. Some horses may need heavier weight of rug, and perhaps even a neck rug. Wind chill is a major factor in the UK that affects how well horses stay warm out in the field. Waterproofing is very important factor in outdoor rugs so be sure to check that your horse is warm and dry inside their rug when you bring them in from the field.

Equally, be ware of over-rugging horses; check that they are not sweating underneath their rug on milder days, which can lead to them getting a chill. Fold back or remove neck rugs, or switch to a lighter weight rug.


2. Take extra care on slippery surfaces

In winter, ask your farrier about using road studs in your horse’s shoes to help reduce the risk of them slipping on wet or icy surfaces. Applying oil to the bottom of your horses feet in the snow may help to reduce icing-packing and therefore bruised soles. Horses that are suited to being barefoot often slip less than horses who are shod.


3. Wear reflective clothing

With reflective clothing, drivers and other road user can see you and your horse at a distance of around 125 metres. This is useful on darker wintery days, as well as at the beginning and end of the day when the light is most poor. Without reflectors, and often wearing with dark clothes, there is a risk that you will cannot be seen until by cars until they are 20-30 metres away. This is very important to help avoid accidents.


4. Check that your horse’s water is not frozen

Whether you use a bucket, trough or automatic drinkers, check them at least twice a day. Water pipes and the surface of the water can easily freeze. Winter is a very common time of the year for horses to get impaction colic - their water intake reduces for a number of reasons. A change in routine and not wanting to drink cold water are two common reasons. Try warming your horses water by diluting the cold water in their bucket with hot/warm water. Some horses find molasses added to the water more palatable. Stables with automatic drinkers should have a supplementary bucket of water. Other ways of increasing water intake are wetting hay, and adding water and/or soaked sugar beet to hard feeds. Signs if an impaction include a reduce number of dry droppings in the stable and mild to severe signs of colic. Read more here.

After the first frost is a good time to worm your horses for tapeworm, and the L4 encysted cyathostome larvae that hibernate over winter in the gut wall. When the weather starts to warm up they hatch out all together and can cause very serious disease, cyathostomiasis. Signs include diarrhoea, ventral abdominal oedema (pitting fluid swelling along the midline), weight loss, fever, colic and hypoproteinaemia. Read more here.


5. Exercise according to the weather and surface conditions

If it is really cold and temperatures are below freezing, it is best for your horse to have an easy day. Take a longer walk, or ride in an arena (outdoors or indoors), if that is an option. If it is icy outside, take this into account, to avoid accidents. However, it is important that the horse is able to get out, either under saddle or in the field/arena. Movement and a pick of grass will help to increase gut motility and reduce the risk of impaction colic, mentioned above.


6. Review your feed supply

In winter, there may be a shortage of grass in the field, or you may have no access to grazing. It is helpful to hand graze your horse for a short time each day, if possible. Alternatively, foe horses that are turned out, it is important to provide supplemental hay. Provide more piles of hay than there are horses in the field to avoid squabbles. Ensure that horses at the lower end of the hierarchy do not go hungry. Spreading out the food will also help your horse busy looking for the food. Also, try offering your horse an activity ball or toys that it can have play with.

If your horse gets less exercise during the winter, it is wise to adjust the amount of food accordingly. Horses that are exercised daily, or lose weight easily during the winter, may instead need increased hay (and hard food) to supplement their diet.


When should you contact a vet?

  • If you are worried about your horse, you should always contact a vet
  • If you horse shows signs of colic
  • To discuss worming programme for your horse, or yard

Here you can book a video appointment to have a chat with one of our FirstVet equine vets for advice, treatment, and if necessary, referral to your local vet.

More articles about Horse