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Winter is coming!

October 25, 2020

Rachel Annan, Equine Technologist, CAFRE

With the change from summer to autumn, our horse management practices will most likely need be adjusted over the next few months in regard to forage, exercise and housing systems. As with any changes with horses, it is best to do so gradually.


Whether the horse will need to be rugged will depend on the breed and type. Native ponies for example will grow long coats to protect them from the elements. Age, health and living environment should also be taken into account when an owner decides whether or not to rug their horse. Some working horses will be clipped in winter and these will certainly need a rug to compensate for the loss of insulation.

Winter can be difficult for horse owners when it comes to rugs. While it is important for horses to be kept warm during winter, owners should ensure that if their horses are wearing rugs, they should be taken off at least once a day to give the horse a thorough check over. If two rugs are worn, consider if they are needed all day, or whether the extra layer would be of more benefit if just put on at night. Check the horse’s temperature and feel underneath the rug to ensure he does not get too warm.  Over rugging a horse can cause him to overheat, which can lead to dehydration and a host of health problems. Remember a horse with his natural winter coat may not need to be rugged as long as it has shelter from the elements, is receiving proper nutrition and is in good health.


Daily exercise is essential for the overall health of the horse year-round. In the wild, horses will regularly travel more than 20 miles a day, making it an important activity for circulation, strength of bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments and health of the hooves. Regular exercise helps keep tendons and muscles loose which helps prevent injury and lameness. With limitations on exercise from flooded or frozen roads, arenas, fields and turnout facilities, as well as reduced daylight hours, exercise regimes may have become disrupted, but there are a number of ways owners can get their horses’ legs stretched.

Horse walkers – An increasing number of yards now use horse walkers to assist with exercising horses. A horse walker is excellent for warming up horses prior to work, cooling down after work and keeping them moving if turnout is problematic. If using horse walkers it is important that the horse is worked evenly in both directions.

Walking in hand – If a horse walker is not available, and the weather has restricted turnout availability and exercise, it is important to get your horse out of the stable for a period of time each day. This may come in the form of walking in hand, around the yard or other safe space.

Lungeing – Lungeing is an excellent exercise which can be carried out in a smaller space than that needed for riding and can allow the horse to walk, trot and canter for up to 20 mins per day depending on fitness levels. However caution should be used when lunging young horses or those recovering from injury as prolonged circle work could be problematic. Long Reining and loose schooling could also be considered as an alternative.

Turnout – If turnout is available either in the field, arena or specific turnout area, horses should be turned out for a period of time every day. If this is not possible, it is worth considering stabling in large barns where horses have more space to move around and socialise with other horses.

Off Road Riding Access – Off road riding trails and organised pleasure rides are a pleasant way to allow horses to be exercised away from busy and weather affected roads.


If a horse’s normal exercise regime has been decreased due to limited riding or turnout facilities, it is extremely important to adjust their feed. As they will not be expending as much energy, they do not need as many calories. Consider increasing the forage percentage and decreasing the concentrate portion of the horses’ feed.

Fermentation of fibre in the horse’s hindgut is the major heat source that keeps horses comfortable through the colder months. Therefore, when pasture is low, a steady supply of hay or haylage is crucial. Type and amount of hay will vary depending on a horse’s size, metabolism, and workload. At a minimum, start with the basic guideline of feeding enough dry matter of forage each day to equal about 1.5% to 2% of the horse’s body weight and increase as needed according to body condition and environmental temperature.


Water is just as important to horses in autumn and winter as it is in summer. Even if the horse is not working and sweating, water consumption is necessary to prevent impaction of ingested material in the intestinal tract. Horses naturally tend to drink less water when the temperature drops, so every effort should be made to ensure sufficient intake. Remember to break any ice on water troughs and buckets and check water regularly throughout the day if the temperature stays low. Whereas humans tend to drink more water on warm summer days, horses may actually need to drink more in colder months if they are eating dry food like hay and concentrates, rather than grass which is around 80% water.

Parasite Testing

Autumn is an important time to carry out parasite testing. Faecal worm egg counts should be carried out to detect roundworm and the EquiSal saliva test to identify tapeworm. Horses with positive results above the threshold should be treated and recommendations followed. In addition, horses should also be tested or treated for encysted redworm.

If you have any concerns about the health of your horse, veterinary or professional advice should always be sought for individual requirements.