Winter Wisdom- Horse Care in the Cold by Ruthann Smith

Winter Wisdom - Horse Care in the Cold

Winter Wisdom

By Ruthann Smith
© 2008, Ruthann Smith, All rights reserved.
Originally Published in Gypsy Horse Journal

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Rolling in the Snow

Wooly coats don’t cover all bases. This article addresses common and pivotal oversights in winter horse care. These simple routines minimize risk for serious illness and injury, while helping to develop a willing and confident partnership.

Cold Air

We tightly close up our houses. But, if you seal the barn, horses get sick. Always leave plenty of fresh air circulating. And, pick stalls often. Ammonia, an off gas of urine, is poisonous. Keep clean air moving. Use your judgment in this matter. Days and horses differ. Windows that don’t blow directly on the horses can be left somewhat open. On very cold days, the barn door open 4-8 inches on each end of the barn can be adequate. Be consistent about adjusting to conditions, always leaving plenty of fresh air circulating.

I never understood why old timers were so adamant about bundling horses and letting wind blow through the barn. It seemed counterintuitive to me, until I taught a clinic in a barn that was sealed tight. I realized the owner broke the big fresh air rule, but I never knew why it was so strongly enforced. Even though the barn was clean, as a result of breathing the fumes all day, I spent that night in the hospital emergency room, buckled over in pain. Now I know why it is important to keep air really fresh and moving.


Leave a clean bucket of water in front of the stable so horses get in the habit of drinking. If you let them drink to their desire after work, they cool out faster and keep hydrated. A walk and water bucket is especially important on hot and cold days. Though, if your routine is consistent, horses look forward to a few sips before grooming or bathing.

Water is crucial to every cellular function in the body, including regulating temperature and digestion. Because water is so critical, be sure it super clean and not frozen. That goes for in stalls and outside for long turnouts. A sound routine is to scrub and rinse water buckets daily. Scour all buckets and feed tubs with dish soap once a week.


Colic can kill horses very quickly. So, you do want to keep their digestive track hydrated. Blockages can be deadly. Even with surgery, horses rarely come back with the same verve.

Your best colic strategy is prevention. The warm bran mash is a tried-and-true way to cut most colic off at the pass. Don’t use hot water as it will shock and tax the system. Before days off AND big changes in the weather, put plenty of warm water in a quart or two of bran with a little sweet grain. Horses love their soupy mashes and they do wonders to promote well-being.

Be sure to wet bran so it expands before feeding. Otherwise, it will absorb any moisture and enlarge in the gut, which promotes colic. Adding warm water to grain is a good way to assure good hydration.

Moldy grain can be lethal. Be sure you use all the old before adding more to a bin or can. If grain is left in a horse’s feed tub, empty it before graining. Clean is safe.

Exercise aids digestion. So, go easy on their systems when stalled and add roughage. If horses are not able to go out, cut their grain ration and increase hay.

Hot or cold, hanging a salt block allows horses to adjust as needed. If on the ground, in or out, it becomes a grimy mess and won’t be utilized. Hanging on a wall, salt is more appealing and readily accessible.


If out for long, make sure lots of clean and unfrozen water is available. If there is no grass, throw hay. Be sure piles are separated, so shy horses eat, too. If you have a shed, put some hay outside as well, on the side sheltered from the wind. That way, timid horses are sure to munch.

Spray lubricant on moveable parts of fasteners that secure gates. WD40, or the like, can keep snaps from freezing.

When horses are in, be sure a halter and lead hangs on each stall. Don’t wait for a fire to learn the importance of this habit.


Keeping your blankets well organized makes it easier to select the correct fit and weight for your horses.


Cover the kidneys! It is most important to keep the back warm. A wool cooler over kidneys can avert sickness and stiffness that induces injury. Throw one behind the saddle when you are walking to warm up or cool out. As soon as the saddle or harness comes off, cover the back with one or two coolers. The wool will keep the back toasty as well as wick off the moisture to dry faster. Closing the chest is optional, depending on the weather and draftiness.

Horses that sweat in clothes are likely to colic. So, adding a layer at night check (~9 or 10 PM) usually works well. Remember, horses can lie down to warm up. But, they’ll get sick if too hot. I check the shoulder and loin or croup for comfort. If ears are cold, the horse is already chilled.

Make sure turnout rugs are clean and dry. Marking the size in big numbers on the inside of the chest flap, makes it easy for anyone to find the right rug.

Proper fit, as well as a vigorous daily grooming, can help prevent shoulder rubs. You want to minimize pressured friction as well stimulate and exfoliate to release protective oils. Natural oils moisturize and fortify, keeping hair and skin supple, hence resilient. Dry skin breaks and cannot support healthy hair growth. Salt is the worst culprit for stripping coats. So, groom before and after work to remove sweat. Make sure your shampoo specifies: no salt, as it is a standard ingredient.

To boost the skin's resilience, curry lots and bathe with Lucky Braids All-In-One Shampoo.

Mud & Snow

Mud and dampness make for crud on heels, called: scratches. The condition can cause severe lameness and become a systemic infection. To prevent scratches, dry legs very well every time a horse comes in from work or turnout.

Snow balled up in horse’s feet is unstable. It can make horses unsteady and lack confidence. Hoof dressing, a cooking spray or petroleum jelly applied to the bottom of hooves can keep snow from balling up. None are perfect solutions, but they can help.


Make sure that tack is hung up neatly and out of the way of hungry rodents.


Before bridling, warm bits by rubbing them between your hands and blowing one them. Surely, you want to start your ride or drive with everyone game.

Store leather in trunks or hanging from hooks, so cold mice don’t snack on tack.



A horse confident his needs will be met is the most relaxed and willing partner. Plus, less problems means lower costs. So, keep tuned in. Observe changes in conditions as well as how your horse responds to them. If you can calibrate your routine to best fit needs and situations, winter can be most enjoyable for all.

Bio Pic

Ruthann Smith has spent a lifetime studying sound horsemanship- both as a groom for top international horses and as a renowned braider. Quietly twisting manes atop a ladder, she watched and learned in some of the best stables in the world.

As her passion for great grooming grew, Ruthann became focused on researching, collecting and sharing the best practices of the world’s keenest horsemen. Ultimately, Ruthann used her vast experience to develop exceptional equine grooming products to help raise the bar of horsemanship.

The knowledge she dispenses and the products Ruthann developed solve age-old grooming issues. Making quality horse care easier, they have received the highest honors in the equine industry*. Her Lucky Braids for Top Turnout coat care and braiding products are the best, most versatile, cost-effective and easiest solutions available on the market today.

Now Ruthann offers her LOVE, LOVE Guarantee. If not totally thrilled with a product she developed, Ruthann will refund you in full, regardless of where you purchased it.

It’s her life’s mission to empower horses by educating, motivating and equipping their people to be true horsemen. You can access Ruthann’s tips at: The Grooming Resource on, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and her Horsemanship Clinics.

*After testing 350 products, Lucky Braids All-In-One Horse Shampoo was named product of the year by Horse Journal, the “Consumer Reports” of the industry. They also named Lucky Braids Shampoo and Top Pick for greys and whites. Lucky Braids specialized braiding yarn also got stellar reviews.