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Cold Weather

Information to help horse keepers during cold weather...

Horses in the snow courtesy of World Horse Welfare

With what is being reported as the worst snow and cold weather for over 30 years we have a special report to help horse owners and keepers ensure the welfare of their horses whilst keeping themselves and premises safe.
A round-up of suggestions from major organisations

The British Horse Society is reporting that it has seen an increase in the number of welfare cases reported during the current cold snap and is urging owners to take a few simple steps to keep their horses happy and healthy.

BHS Senior Executive (Welfare) Lee Hackett said: “We have received huge numbers of calls to our welfare line reporting horses in distress. Although well meaning, quite a number of them have turned out to be unfounded, as horses generally cope quite well with cold weather even though they may look quite miserable! However, there are some steps that owners can take to ensure that their horses don’t become genuine welfare concerns.”

Horses generate a lot of heat from fibre digestion which is one of the key reasons that they can handle cold weather. The BHS recommends that a constant supply of forage (for example hay) is available to all horses, even those turned out in snow covered fields. Horses that are confined to their stables should have their hard feed reduced and forage levels increased in order to keep them warm and prevent them from putting on weight.

A constant supply of water is essential but buckets and troughs will freeze over very quickly in such cold weather so they need to be checked, and the ice broken, as regularly as possible throughout the day. The BHS has received reports that some vets have seen an increase in the number of colic cases as thirsty horses drink large quantities of freezing cold water. To prevent this, make sure that the horse has access to water at all times so he doesn’t feel the need to drink large amounts in one go, and add a little warm water to their buckets where possible.

Shelter is paramount, and not just from the snow. Wind chill makes a big difference so there should always be somewhere for a horse to escape the gales. Rugs should not be seen as an alternative to shelter but they are important, particularly for older and finer horses. Unclipped, healthy native bred ponies will often manage fine without a rug as long as adequate shelter and forage is available.

The BHS Welfare Department is happy to talk to any horse owners concerned about how best to manage their horses in the cold weather and they can be reached on 01926 707804 or at welfare@bhs.org.uk


Leading international horse charity World Horse Welfare has also suggested top tips for caring for horses in snow.  The charity cares for around 330 horses at any one time across its four UK Recovery and Rehabilitation Centres. Even at its 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!”

Here are their top tips on looking after horses and ponies in snowy conditions:


1.      A constructed shelter or hedge will ensure that your horse can find protection from the elements.

2.      If your horse has to be rugged, always have a spare one available so you can swap if it gets very wet.  It’s important to remove and re-adjust rugs every day so you can check your horse thoroughly.

3.      Be careful not to over rug your horse. It could overheat and too many rugs will prevent air circulation. 

4.      If your horse lives out 24/7, keep a close eye on their legs. In deep and prolonged snow, their legs are not able to fully dry off, which can cause skin conditions.

5.      If your grazing is sparse and covered by snow put some hay or haylage out to compensate. However, if your horse is not used to hay or haylage as part of its diet, you may cause problems by suddenly introducing it so if snow is persistent, introduce the forage gradually over a number of days.

6.      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.

7.      Have some sand available to use on icy paths.

8.      Check the horse regularly for any changes in bodyweight by using a weighbridge or tape. You may be riding less, or increasing the amount of time that your horse is stabled, which means that it is burning fewer calories.

9.      Make sure fresh water is always available by breaking any ice.

10.   Check your fencing regularly and remove any snow and ice from electric tape as the extra weight can bend and break plastic poles.

11.   Remember that when the snow melts, the ground will be soft and easy to churn up. To avoid injury and mud fever, take steps to stop the ground being disturbed. Moving your horse to different fields to graze will help. Or 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.


Liz Farr, manager of the Blue Cross animal welfare charity's Burford Equine Centre says: "In this freezing weather horses have difficulty in eating and drinking let alone all the other potential problems.

"The most common things we see are frozen drinking troughs - these need checking every day. I've found that simply putting a large plastic ball in the water helps to prevent freezing over - although sometimes horses do prefer to play football with it!"


Providing information through Horse Sport Ireland, Joe Collins, President of Veterinary Ireland and World Horse Welfare funded PhD scholar at UCD, is recommending procedures for horse owners to assist them during the current extreme weather conditions.
Mr. Collins says that there are five key areas that can safeguard the welfare of horses we keep. These are:

1.      Many water pipes and automatic drinkers are frozen – check them daily. Ensure that horses have access to an adequate supply of clean water that is not freezing cold – they drink a surprising amount even in very cold weather.

2.      Horses generate large amounts of heat through the process of digestion, especially the breaking down of fibrous food in the large intestine – so provide forage (hay or haylage) on an ad lib basis supplemented with concentrates, and not the other way round.

3.      Unless very thin-skinned or clipped, horses cope with dry, cold weather remarkably well. They fare worst when extreme cold is combined with wet, windy conditions – they now need protection from over-exposure. Don’t clip the natural hair or groom all the natural oils from horses’ coats without good reason. Provide shelter from driving wind and rain using barriers like waterproof rugs, hedges and man-made structures.

4.      Check horses at least once daily for signs of illness and injury. Try and prevent the most likely and act promptly when any occur. Sick horses deteriorate more rapidly in severe weather conditions.

5.      Horses fare best in groups and when they have jobs to do – they are sociable animals that, in the main, enjoy the company of other animals, and people.


Related Reports

08/01/10 – Berkshire – UK: Firefighters praised for horse rescue

A horse owner has praised firefighters after successfully rescuing his 30 year old horse that slipped on black ice while on a short hack in a village near Reading, Berkshire on Sunday 3rd January.

Read the full report

Source: Reading Post (getreading.co.uk)

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