The Big Chill!

The Big Chill!

Taking care of horses during severe winter weather.

Winter has finally arrived. Your horse has been happy and content living on pasture but now the “Big Chill” is coming. What should you do to avoid a medical crisis?


The single most important item for all horses is water. As temperatures drop horses will drink less water. A stock tank heater can be used to keep water troughs and buckets at a higher temperature that encourages water consumption. Cold weather in Georgia usually only lasts a day of two and most of us do not have heaters on our water troughs. So you are going to need a tool to break the ice on the trough at least twice a day. Using a hammer is likely to result in splashing and cold wet hands. A shovel makes a great ice breaker. After you have broken the ice remove the chunks of ice to slow the trough from refreezing. A pitch fork works for big chunks but a swimming pool net or tennis racket will get the small pieces while you stay dry.


Horses generate body heat when they are digesting hay. Horses that have free access to hay during cold weather generally stay very comfortable. Do not change the amount of hay you are feeding when cold weather comes. The combination of increased hay to eat and reduced water consumption in cold weather is a leading cause of colic. If your horse has not been used to free choice hay DO NOT move a round bale into the pasture. The horses will overeat at the “Round Bale Buffet” and you will have a colic as a result. These problems are magnified when you are using coastal Bermuda hay.

Feed and Grain

Horses in cold weather should stay on their normal rations. Making abrupt changes in the amount of the type of feed is a great way to trigger a colic episode. Many horses enjoy wet feed that has had warm water added to make a mash. Mashes are a wonderful way to increase the amount of water your horse is consuming and avoid colic.


To blanket or not, that is the question. The answers is….it depends.

If your horse is in good weight with a good winter hair coat it will not need a blanket. You may actually create a problem by leaving it on too long and causing the horse to sweat under the blanket. Horses that are not used to wearing blankets can become frightened and get angled in their blankets resulting in injuries. Blanketing requires a little skill. A poorly fitted blanket that is to large may slip and injure the horse. A blanket that is too small may cause abrasions.

If your horse is body clipped it is MANDATORY that your horse has an entire wardrobe of sheets and blankets or you will rapidly end up at the veterinary clinic or worse on a surgical table. The body clipped horse requires a very high level of attention to changes in the weather and appropriate changes to the blanketing. This will be necessary until late spring.

If you have a horse that is not in good weight you are likely to need to blanket that horse. Our bodies produce fat around our internal organs and under our skin to insulate us. The thin horse is not well insulated and can be easily chilled. The thin horse will need protection in a barn or a turnout blanket when temperatures drop below freezing.


Have you ever wondered why some horses prefer to stand in the rain even though a shelter is nearby? Some horses seem to enjoy shelters and barns while others prefer to stay outside. Horses can find natural shelters in tree groves where the leaf canopy provides a natural roof. Hills and some fences provide a wind break. A well designed shelter has a roof and some sides but is constructed so that a dominant horse cannot trap and injure a subordinate horse. You can build shelters but ultimately it is up to horse to use it.

Barns and stables are the ultimate shelter. Some horse enjoy being stabled while others can becomes very anxious and make themselves sick when removed from the pasture.

Charlene B. Cook DVM