Caring for horses during winter

There are important considerations to take into account when caring for horses during the colder winter months.

Decisions need to be made about your resources and ability to provide for each horse before the cold winter months arrive. Significant grass growth may not occur until well into the next spring.

The following points are a guide to caring for your horse and need to be considered:

Your legal responsibility when caring for horses

It is your legal responsibility to ensure that horses do not starve or become distressed at any time, including during the winter months that follow dry or drought conditions. Doing nothing is not an option. Being aware is a necessity. It is imperative to plan your resources ahead and make appropriate arrangements if you cannot meet the needs of your horses.

Keep your horse above condition score 2

Always keep your horse above condition score 2. Score 3 is preferable. Under condition score 2, a horse needs twice the amount of feed to gain 1kg than it does to maintain it. It is less expensive to maintain a horse at or above condition score 2 than to let it fall below this score and then attempt to increase it.

Visit Condition Scoring and Weight Estimation of Horses for more information.

Provide shelter or a rug for your horse

Wind, rain and dampness can cause a horse to lose body condition or become ill very quickly.

Provide shelter or a rug to reduce your horse's exposure to wind and rain. Your horse will burn less calories to keep warm and weight loss will be prevented.

Inspect a rugged horse daily in case it becomes tangled in the rug or injured. Remove the rug at least once a week to check the horse's body condition. Look for rubbing and signs of water leaking through the rug.

Create a feed budget for your horse

Create a feed budget early. Plan to feed through winter and well into the next spring, when new, good quality grass grows in sufficient amounts to be grazed. See Feed Budgets for Horses for more information.

De-stock or reduce horse numbers before you run out of feed. You can sell horses by advertising in a newspaper or horse magazine, or through the saleyards. If necessary, consider euthanasia — it is a humane option rather than to allow a horse to suffer from starvation or illness. This can be arranged with a knackery or veterinary practitioner.

Green paddocks may not have sufficient pasture

Beware of the 'green drought' illusion. Paddocks may appear green after rain, but there may still be insufficient pasture for horses. Check pasture in your paddocks carefully and be realistic about available grass.

Dental checks for horses

Get a dental check-up done on horses. Properly maintained teeth by an equine veterinarian or dentist will help your horse make better use of its feed. This will save money on feed costs. Regular dental maintenance also helps prevent painful dental conditions developing.

Worming of horses

Maintain a worming program. Worms in the horse's gut take nutrients from the horse and cause damage to the gut. This reduces absorption of nutrients from food.

Wean your foals

A lactating mare costs 70 per cent more to feed than a dry mare. Wean foals as soon as they are at least 16 weeks of age and at least 28 per cent of their expected mature body weight at weaning. For example, a foal that is expected to reach 500kg mature weight must be at least 140kg before it is weaned.

Reassess your horse's value

Reassess the value of your horses to decide whether to keep them. Be realistic and consider:

  • horses are generally worth less in drought conditions due to oversupply
  • horses in light body condition will have little or no value
  • unhandled, unbroken and aged horses will have low value
  • lactating mares, young and old horses need the most energy to maintain condition and should be the first selected for de-stocking or disposal.

Sand colic

Beware of sand colic. This can be caused by ingestion of sand from feeding on ground.

A simple test to indicate if your horse may excessive sand in the gut is to place some manure in a glass jar full of water, shake it and let it settle. Often the sand will settle at the bottom.

Avoid feeding on sandy ground if possible reduce the risk of sand colic occurring. If you suspect your horse may be at risk of sand colic consult your veterinary practitioner.

Stringhalt

Beware of stringhalt. Stringhalt is a nerve related condition thought to be caused by a fungus on flat weed, and some other weeds. Signs include exaggerated flexion of one or both hind legs when moving forwards or backwards.

It is most likely to occur in autumn, particularly after or during drought.

Contact your veterinarian if you suspect your horse may be affected.

Weed poisoning in horses

Beware of weed poisoning. Weeds often flourish after rain in Autumn, following a summer drought. Common weeds poisonous to horses include Paterson's curse, ragwort, bracken fern, flatweed, marshmallow and St John's wort.

Founder or lamintitis in horses

Beware of founder (laminitis). Laminitis may occur if the horse is allowed access new grass after rain too quickly. Introduce new grass gradually.

More information

  • Contact our Customer Service Centre on 136 186.
  • For contact details of your nearest knackery, contact PrimeSafe on 03 9685 7333.
  • For details of your nearest saleyard, contact your local council or nearest pony or horse riding club.

References

  • 'Falling into Winter', Kentucky Equine Research EquiNews, Vol 9 Issue 4, 2006, www.ker.com.
  • Nash, D (1999) Drought Feeding and Management for Horses, RIRDC, ACT, Australia.
  • RIRDC Equine Research News (1995) Issue 2.
  • Stubbs, A (1999) Healthy Land, Healthy Horses, A Guidebook for Small Properties, RIRDC, ACT Australia.
Page last updated: 08 Jul 2021