winterizing the barn

Time-tested tips to keep your farm, horses, and equipment in top shape during the winter months.

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care

As the vibrant colors of autumn fade into winter pale, we find ourselves readying our barns, equipment, and horses for challenging weather. Randy Eubanks, who has experience caring for 100 head of horses in Longmont, Colorado, is fond of saying, “Be prepared, and have equipment and plans ready rather than having to react to a sudden situation.”

Eubanks and Liz Scott, DVM, of Idaho Equine Hospital, in Nampa, share with us their time-tested steps for cold weather readiness around the barn.

Water Concerns

A critical element to keeping your horse healthy in winter is ice-free water. A horse that stops drinking is more likely to suffer from impaction colic (caused by an obstruction in the bowel), or he might eat less. In winter a horse generally consumes about 5 to 10 gallons of water per day, and more if exercised.

Tank heaters keep water ice-free and less cold. Heaters with elements that immerse to the bottom of the tank, where a horse can’t easily access them, are safest. Before the onset of winter, check that tank heaters are operational and are not passing electrical shocks through the drinking water (use a voltmeter, or schedule a visit from an electrician). Horse-proof electrical cords in protective casing by running cords through plastic pipe or securing them out of reach of inquisitive mouths.

To minimize fire risks and steep electrical costs associated with running dozens of tank heaters around a property, consider solar-powered, freeze-free water troughs. Eubanks suggests using a bank of solar panels to run the tank heaters directly or to put electricity back into the commercial grid for credit to your account. You will, however, need to make sure panels do not get covered in snow.

To help warm water in large stock tanks, Eubanks suggests circulating propylene glycol (a liquid used in antifreeze and deicing solutions) through black pipes in the tank. An air bubbler inserted directly into a tank also can delay ice formation by circulating warmer water from the lower areas of the tank. An insulated lid on large water tanks, with sufficient muzzle space for horses to drink, also is valuable; this way heat is less able to escape from the open surface area of the tanks. Build an insulated box around a water tank to further conserve heat. Routinely check the tank to make sure it is clean and that nothing has fallen into it that could affect your horse’s water intake.

Another winter water concern is the care of hoses. Remove water hoses from spigots so they don’t freeze. Also, says Eubanks, leaving a hose in a water tank creates a siphon effect, particularly when attached to a frost-free hydrant. He suggests removing a hose from a hydrant, draining it, and storing it in a warm room in the barn where it won’t freeze. Then it’ll be ready for the next use.

Heat tape can help prevent drains and pipes from freezing. Eubanks recommends stretching out the heat tape, rather than leaving it in a coil, before plugging it in and not to overlap it as you wrap it around a pipe or drain. “Otherwise,” he remarks, “It makes a melted mess.”

Water drainage is an issue in cold and snowy climates. Frigid nights turn puddles into ice sheets, which are treacherous to both humans and horses. Place gutters along strategic areas of barns and run-in shed roofs, and plan an annual fall cleaning of gutters to ensure water runs freely through them rather than spilling over the sides and forming patches of ice. Eubanks also says, “A supply of play sand (or kitty litter) is handy to broadcast a light layer over icy spots in paddocks–this keeps horses from sliding around on freeze-thaw areas that may be wet one hour and surprisingly frozen the next.”

Hoof Issues

Another winter preparation item on your checklist revolves around whether to shoe your horse. Since short days and slippery footing hinder winter riding opportunities, you might want your farrier to pull your horse’s shoes. Winter is an ideal time to let your horse go barefoot for a couple of months of the year. In particular, pull shoes on horses living outside on icy ground, since steel shoes have no traction, and horseshoes tend to pack up with snow and ice balls, adding to the hazard of moving around. Barefoot hooves are “rested” from the weight of shoes and are able to attain a more expansible and natural state. However, a thin-soled and brittle-hoofed horse might get sore when not wearing horseshoes, so work with your farrier and veterinarian to customize this strategy according to your horse’s unique needs.

Winter Nutrition

Nutritional considerations are important to help keep your horse healthy in all seasons. Scott is well-versed in cold weather care of horses. She points out that for every degree below freezing, your horse’s nutritional needs could increase as much as 5-10%. Provide good-quality grass hay that, through fermentation by large intestinal microbes, will generate heat from within, like an internal combustion chamber.

“During cold, wet snaps, it is best to feed more hay to help your horse stay warm rather than loading him up with grain,” Scott stresses. “Over time, grain-based calories may put weight and fat on his frame but do very little during an immediate need for warmth. Instead of grain, a pelleted complete feed is useful for its increased fiber content.” High-fat supplements (vegetable oil or rice bran) provide an excellent and safe means of feeding more calories without the risk of carbohydrate overload from grain.

Provide pastured horses with sufficient hay feeding stations to eliminate bickering and allow the least dominant horses access to feed. The lone horse standing off from the others during feeding time needs special consideration to ensure he gets enough groceries–feed should be taken to where he is comfortable eating.

Eubanks typically doubles the amount of hay he provides in winter over that of summer. He makes a salient point: “Provide plenty of hay when there’s snow on the ground. Otherwise, as horses paw in search of food they destroy the grass roots, making it necessary to reseed in the spring.”

Feeders that are elevated off the ground will also save your grass and minimize hay waste.

As you would in any other season of the year, keep pelleted feed, grain, and rice bran in rodent-proof feed containers behind locked doors where an escaped horse cannot access the stored feed. Winter has a way of attracting critters to places with easy access to feed. Keep a broom and dustpan handy to clean up any spilled material so as not to attract raccoons, rodents, opossums, or other varmints to your feed shed.

General Health Issues

Scott reminds us to ensure each horse has grown enough hair coat and has ample body fat to insulate against the elements. Run your hand across the rib cage to feel for insulating fat–you should barely feel the last two ribs. When possible, turn your horse out to pasture in winter to maintain muscle tone, to keep his joints moving and lubricated, and to warm himself by moving around. It is a common sight to see horses in the field standing with their haunches to the wind and snow, heads down, not moving as icicles form on their bodies. Although not absolutely necessary, shelter from wind and precipitation will keep your horse comfortable and help him maintain body weight.

“For horses with sparse hair coats or an inadequate layer of fat,” Scott notes, “make a plan to bring those individuals into shelter and/or to provide them with blankets (that fit and are in good repair) during the worst weather.” Shelter from wind, rain, or snow reduces the metabolic demands of your horse and correspondingly reduces the need for greater feed consumption.

To promote better feed intake and utilization, have your horse’s teeth checked by your veterinarian before winter, and address dental needs to ensure adequate digestion and absorption of nutrients.

“Keep your horse up-to-date on viral respiratory vaccines,” urges Scott. These immunizations are usually given in spring and boostered in the autumn months.

Another winter health concern is respiratory issues that develop in horses enclosed in dank barns with still air. Ammonia from urine collects in the stalls and irritates horses’ airways, leading to coughing and potential respiratory infection. Ensure adequate ventilation if stabling your horse indoors.

To further ensure respiratory health, protect your hay and feed storage areas from excess moisture. This minimizes the risk of mold contamination that can cause allergic respiratory problems.

Winterize your first-aid kit and barn supplies. Bring anything inside that you don’t want frozen, such as ointments, salves, gels, dewormers, oral paste medications, or oral or injectable liquids. Store these supplies in locked cabinets that are inaccessible to children or pets.

Farm Equipment

Whether you grow hay on your farm or use equipment to move hay around and collect or spread manure, taking care of your equipment makes it last longer. For equipment that is to be put up for the winter, Eubanks offers some useful advice: “Remove all hay and hay dust from your equipment and power wash away all debris. This eliminates moisture condensation that causes rust.” With such care, Eubanks managed to keep his baler in good working order for 27 years before it had to be replaced.

Starting your tractor in cold weather, particularly if it runs on diesel, can be a challenge. Eubanks recommends a magnetic engine heater, available in any auto parts store, to attach to the bottom of the oil pan–leaving it plugged in overnight makes it ready for action first thing in the morning. Insulated thermal blankets placed over the top of the engine can also be plugged in to substitute for an engine block heater. For diesel tractors without glow plugs or block heaters, Eubanks suggests placing an in-line heater hose on the tractor, which keeps water circulating in the engine while the tractor is parked.

For all motor-driven equipment, ensure antifreeze is topped off and good to -45 degrees Fahrenheit; antifreeze gauges are available at auto parts stores. Make sure there are no leaks from any radiator hoses since ethylene glycol (antifreeze) is extremely toxic to animals if ingested.

Check that vehicle batteries hold their charge and are in good condition. Replace outdated batteries.

Those living in snowy climates are used to plowing roads and pathways to allow vehicles in and out of the property and for trucks or tractors to move hay to horses located around the farm. Use reflector markers to flag the edges of a driveway for plowing. Or, property owners can stick red flags into the ground as guides–these generally pop back up if run over by a tractor or plow.

Much of winter farm care readiness is based on common sense. Preparation should target water availability and accessibility, good drainage, and elimination of hazardous ice and snow in areas trafficked by horses and humans. Have your veterinarian address your horse’s health needs with preventive care. Keep your eyes open to abnormal horse behavior. 

Reprinted with permission from The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care/ Find more veterinarian-approved horse care information at

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