Ask the expert: How do you encourage horses to move during winter months?

Hannah Lochner and Krishona Martinson
University of Minnesota Extension

Question: At the end of the grazing season, I transitioned my horse from pasture to hay in a dry lot in preparation for winter. I’ve noticed that my horse tends to be less active now and continuously stands at or near the hay feeder. Is this detrimental to his digestive health? How can I encourage him to move?

Response: Natural horse behaviors that support digestive health and gut motility include eating small frequent meals throughout the day and locomotion (e.g. walking and movement). Grazing best satisfies these behaviors; however, year-round pasture access is not possible in the Midwest. Horses may be less inclined to move during the winter due to forage type (e.g. pasture vs. hay), poor footing, and limited space. Minimal locomotion in horses may lead to ‘stocking up’ and a heightened risk of colic. However, having access to good quality forage and clean, “tepid water” (45 to 65 degrees) is key to maintaining digestive health.

There are several management practices you can take to encourage your horse to move during the winter months. If feeding small square bales, you can divide your horse’s hay ration into smaller parts and place them around the perimeter of the dry lot to encourage movement and mimic grazing. To avoid feeding off the ground, hay nets can be used to contain the hay. If feeding round-bales, placing the round-bale furthest away from the shelter and water can encourage movement. Similarly, if feeding grain or a ration balancer, place feeders in areas furthest away from hay feeders. Although not convenient for owners and managers, these strategies should encourage horse movement.

Additionally, many horses may be reluctant to walk on frozen manure piles or ice. Therefore, it’s important to routinely pick manure and manage ice in dry lots throughout the winter months. Periodically hand-walking or riding your horse can be beneficial in stimulating gut motility; however, we realize weather conditions may not allow for this unless there is access to an indoor arena.