Helping your horse cope with a cold winter

Winter is a time when your hose will expend more energy to keep warm. How you assist him with this will vary with your local conditions, but there are a few simple things you can do wherever you have a definite “winter” season.

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on

Water is a primary consideration – all life needs water to survive and while horses can survive on ice and snow, if they have their water intake is greatly reduced this can lead to dehydration, weight loss or colic. Impaction colic is a common problem in winter when horses do not drink enough water because dehydration leads to material within the digestive tract drying out, and the horse becoming constipated. 

Providing water in waterers warmed to 45 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit will usually help your horse meet adequate water needs. Frozen water buckets are not desirable. 

If you are able to provide warmed water and your horse is still reluctant to drink during the cold weather you can add celery seeds to his feed. A teaspoon of this seed is often enough to encourage your horse to drink more. It is also a good winter supplement as a digestive tonic and assisting with stiffness from arthritic joints in older horses.

A long coat is the horses first line of defence against cold weather. If a horse is rugged or blanketed or kept in a warm barn, he will not grow an adequate length of coat to protect him against the elements. If given the opportunity horses will huddle together and run around to keep warm . Care does have to be taken if your horse has come from a warmer climate and not yet acclimatised or if he gets wet. A wet coat will make it more difficult to stay warm and maintain comfort.

To warm your horse from the inside out, Ginger is my favourite wintertime herb. It brings warmth to both you and your horse when given in feed. A teaspoon added to each feed is enough to warm the gut, and generate warmth that permeates throughout the body. Ginger is also indicated for most illnesses that can be traced back to exposure to a draft or coldness in the body, any respiratory tract imbalance, to musculoskeletal issues. 

If you are able to have freestanding water buckets that will not freeze over, add a slice or two of fresh ginger to one of these buckets, the hint of the herb that permeates the water is warming and comforting when your horse drinks from the bucket.

Body fat is also vital in insulating your horse against the cold. In very cold climates a body score of 7 will be able to help a horse survive and provide a reservoir of energy to generate heat. 

Fenugreek seeds help keep condition on a horse. They are an appetite stimulant as well as well as helping with any imbalance in the respiratory tract. You only need to add a tablespoon of fenugreek seeds to a feed, however as the seeds are difficult to digest unassisted, steep the seeds in boiling water to soften before adding the seeds and the water to your horse’s feed.

If possible, try and provide large amounts of grass hay to horse restricted from forage, free-choice hay helps horses to generate more metabolic energy to help them stay warm when exposed to cold weather.

Chamomile is another herb that helps with condition. It helps regulate the immune system in a gentle way, however when it comes to body condition it supports the muscles in the body.

Shelter needs to be available. Don’t underestimate the benefits of a natural windbreak or simple shelter, build your shelter so your horse can come and go freely, but has the choice to take refuge if the weather is extreme. Horses do not tolerate considerable cold if they are turned out after being stabled in a closed cosy barn.

If you have a closed barn allow for plenty of ventilation, not drafts, where your horse can move around and remain dry. Manure and urine soaked bedding needs to be removed daily from enclosed spaces to avoid the build up of ammonia concentrates. 

Your horse will appreciate the scent of aromatherapy if stabled in a closed environment. They help cheer up the barn sour horse and also act as negative ion generators to inhibit the spread of airborne pathogens. Grapefruit essential oil is referred to as “brain sunshine” and simply wafting the uncapped bottle under your horse’s nose will lift his spirits. Eucalyptus and Bergamot are antiviral and can be used in the same way to help build your horse’s resistance to ‘cold’ viruses.

The herb rosehip, when added to the feed of a stabled horse will also help to build his resistance to disease and improve recovery time after illness that may have been your reason for accommodating him in a barn.

When working horses in cold weather, warm horses up slowly before asking for serious work. It would also be of benefit to both yourself and your horse to give your horse a good brisk massage to warm you both up before even saddling. Sweeping effleurage and circular frictions will generate heat and warm up the muscles.

Most importantly when you are finished and unsaddled dry your horse off. Your horse needs to be cooled down thoroughly and brushed to stand the hair up so the fluffy hair traps air and keeps your horse warm Flat wet hair clings to the body and lets body heat escape.

One first aid remedy to have handy throughout winter at the first sign of any illness is the biochemic tissue salt Ferr Phos. Remembering the importance of veterinary care, this tissue salt can be administered easily and quickly directly into the mouth at the first sign of fever or runny nose. Garlic is another preventative herb and a tablespoon every second day is enough to bolster the immune system through the colder months, and Echinacea root brewed into a decoction is often good to start your horses on, especially if your horse is new to a cold environment or had a history of respiratory complaints. Echinacea can be a controversial herb, if you are using the leaf, it is best used when you first notice infection and for three to four weeks to be effective. If you wish to use Echinacea to build up resistance to disease, it is important you obtain the dried root of the plant from a reliable source as this part of the plant has a longer efficacy in the body. 

Other herbs useful during the winter months are Nettles, Yarrow and Hawthorn Leaf as they improve the circulation to the most parts of the body and provide extra nutritional basics.

A little common sense goes a long way during these trying months. 

During the colder months respiratory tract infections tend to be an issue. Herbs such as Elder, Yarrow, Elecampane and Mullein, Echinacea, and Astragalus are all herbs you need to know how to get hold of if your horse needs this sort of support.

Elder flowers contain tannins and mucilage which are very soothing to irritated mucosal tissue. Elecampane and Mullein are two herbs to consider if your horse is afflicted with a cough. Elecampane while it soothes the respiratory tract also strengthens its ability to eliminate congestion from the lungs. It is very useful for the horse who is irritated by dust in their feed. Mullein is more for the wet coughs, where there is persistent dampness, or where your horse may be sore and irritated in the respiratory tract. All these herbs can be made into a tea mixture and steeped before adding to a feed, if combining two or three herbs, ½ to 1 cup of mixed herbs daily if often sufficient with horses on the mend or twice daily for horses need that little extra support.

Yarrow helps to dilate the peripheral blood vessels that become contracted in the cold, to assist the body to maintain a healthy warmth as well help address mild fevers or minor circulatory congestion. Yarrow is useful to use with ponies who feel the cold during winter in preparation for the sweet Spring grasses that may induce founder, as the weather begins to warm up a pony would benefit from a handful of the dried leaf added to a daily feed.

If your horse has been unfortunate and fallen to an illness during the colder months you can use herbs to rebuild his immune system and strengthen him for the coming year. Astragalus is a herb that will help strengthen the whole body, and another that is becoming popular is the Bulgarian grown Tribulus. Using either of these herbs or combining them with traditional western herbs such as Licorice will help your horse recover with more strength from within. If this is an approach you need, find a herbalist who can supply you with a blend of the liquid extracts. 

The most effective use of herbs with horses is simple and usually three or four herbs in a daily regimen will combine with a nice synergy to help your horse overcome most obstacles the cold weather creates within the body.

This article was first published in Natural Horse Magazine in 2006 and written for our US friends using imperial measurements.


One thought on “Helping your horse cope with a cold winter

  1. Fabulous articles Catherine! So many herbs with an array of possibilities. And I do have your earlier book and will get it out of the bookshelf and have a read!!

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