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10 Tips for Surviving Sub-0 Temperatures with Horses

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

Negative 9 is cold, even for Southwest Montana, so Andrew and I hurried back from a ski trip as soon as we realized that an arctic blast was headed our way. I'm glad that we did, because these temperatures are "next level" cold and demand extra diligence! This was our first winter back in Montana, so we had imperfect systems that required some trial and error. As a result, here are 10 tips for keeping horses outdoors during frigid temperatures.

Water Consumption

I can not overstate the importance of WATER consumption in extreme weather. If I stress about anything during subzero temperatures (and boy do I), it's about my horses' water consumption. I know that colic is the number one killer of horses, and the number one cause of colic is poor hydration, so I put most of my energy here.

Tip # 1 In extremely cold temperatures you're going to need a water heater that is 1250 watts or greater. We had purchased the energy efficient 250 watt deicers which worked great in the insulated tanks in double digit temps. However, they failed to keep water thawed in prolonged single digit and then subzero temperatures. Below are pictures of the insulated boxes we built for galvanized metal water tanks. As I mentioned above, they have proven VERY useful for conserving power and allowing us to use the lower wattage tank deicers most of the winter, but won't keep up in prolonged low temperatures. Here is the link to the excellent blog that inspired our project! CLICK HERE

Tip #2 Keep hoses as short as possible. The longer and cheaper the hose, the more cumbersome and breakable, so buy a hose that is the shortest length necessary. A short hose will be easier to drain and less cumbersome getting into the house to stay thawed.

Tip #3 Watch that you don't put too much load on your electrical circuits or you'll trip the breaker. A typical circuit only has 15-20 amps service, so only plug in one 1500 watt water heater per circuit. Second to this, buy the larger gauge extension cords for running electricity to the water heater.

Warmth = Movement, Protection, & Fiber Digestion

Three things keep your horse warm in extreme temperatures; movement, wind/rain protection, and fiber digestion. Movement means just that. Turning horses out in larger pens or pastures makes them move and circulate blood through their limbs. Tip #4 You can also spread hay piles out generously throughout the pasture so that they have to keep moving to consume them.

Protection can come in the form of blanketing, shed rows, stalls, or even just trailers parked in pastures. We accomplished a lot of farm projects last year, but building shelters was not one of them. Therefore, a little more blanketing and a little more creativity was in order for this winter. Tip #5 Park trailers to create barriers from the wind. When wind gusts send temperatures plummeting below zero, we maneuvered the trailers close to pens to increase wind break. Two trailers, several large pine trees, a barn and a shop completed my wind break and worked really well. My neighbor was wise and did this BEFORE the snow drifts piled up.

I use blanketing to protect my horses against wind and rain due to a lack of shelters on the property. In general, I know that horses fair quite well in cold (even extreme cold), but wind and wetness ADDED to cold are dangerous. When in doubt and when describing my method for blanketing to horse sitters, I use My 2:3 Rule; blanket when two of the three exist; a) cold, b) wet, and c) wind Tip #6.

Your horse's gut is like your septic tank- the metabolic activity of your horse's microbes creates heat, so feeding horses more fiber is the best way to feed the microbes and keep horses extra warm. The picture below (with my dog Reed for reference) perfectly illustrates how microbial activity in the septic tank below the yard melts the snow more quickly than the surrounding area. Tip #7, To keep the microbes active throughout cold periods, feed hay little and often throughout the day and night while ensuring water access at all times. Feeding little and often also minimizes hay waste. What else do microbes need to stay alive...yep, you guessed it...water. That extra fiber intake requires extra water, so once again, the importance of water consumption can not be overstated.

Tip #8 *Grain does NOT keep horses warm in extreme cold. When picking up yet another water heater at my local feed store yesterday, I notice a LOT of large orders of horse grain. I also remember from my college days, that COB sales spiked during extra cold weeks which in my opinion is quite silly. MOST horses do NOT need more grain at this time. The only reason to feed additional grain (high calorie feed stuffs) is if extreme temperatures are prolonged and you have a very hard keeper that loses weight quickly. Yes, it requires more energy to stay warm, but most horses should get that from the extra hay consumption.

Tip #9 Increase your horse's forage by 15-25%. If you currently feed about 20 pounds per day, throw an extra 3 to 5 pounds per day to increase daily intake. Wind and deeper snow will create hay waste, so calculate that into your horse's hay allotment as well. Tip #10 If you buy hay only once or twice a year, make sure that you calculate extra cold-weather consumption and hay waste into your purchase so that you don't run out before summer hay season.

Extremely cold temperatures are, by and large, not dangerous to horses. However, decreased water consumption leading to colic, the addition of wind and snow to that cold, and poorly designed electrical systems are life threatening. Keep your horses warm and safe by increasing forage intake, increasing movement, protecting them from wind and wetness, and creating safe electrical systems. When the temperatures finally climb to 25 degrees, I will resume my spring conditioning plan. Until then, more tack cleaning (yea I wish).

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