I’m Cold, So They Must Be Cold
Humans have the tendency to think that if they are cold, their horse must be cold, but Mother Nature has provided horses the ability to prevail against the harshest conditions. “Horses evolved as temperate animals and actually are more comfortable in cold temperatures than in warm,” explains Dr. Janice Sojka, associate professor of large animal medicine at Purdue University. “One source states the horse’s neutral zone – the temperature where the animal is most comfortable and is not expending any energy to keep himself cool or warm – is between 20 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit (-6 to +4 degrees C).”
Most horses will handle the cold weather just fine, as they have a very effective thermal blanket in the form of a coat. They also have the ability to trap air in their coat, which provides an insulating layer. With that said, there are certainly some winter conditions that are too harsh for your horse. These conditions include rain, sleet, snow and wind. So how can you tell if your horse is too cold? One of the best indicators that a horse is cold are their ears. Cold ears mean a cold horse.
Can Horses Get Frostbite?
Although frostbite is uncommon among horses, there are certain conditions that place horses at risk. Newborns and old horses are more susceptible to frostbite, along with horses that are underweight, lame or suffer from abnormal sweating. Also horses that are in extreme cold temperatures for extended periods of time without shelter or are unable to stay dry are most likely to become victims of frostbite.
Feeding For the Cold
A horse must spend more energy in the winter to keep warm, so a change in your feed program may be needed. When temperatures drop, the best heat source is extra hay. Supplementation with grain is another way to help your horse deal with the cold, but if your horse is already overweight there may be no need to increase their grain.
The Importance of Mouth Care
Cold temperatures can lead to mouth-related problems for horses, especially older ones. Horses with poor teeth may be able to maintain good body condition in the summer, but this becomes much more challenging in the winter. Horses will not be able to efficiently use the extra winter feed without good teeth, and should be examined every few days in the winter to be sure that they are not losing weight or condition.
Riding during the winter is extremely important, but using a frozen bit can cause mouth damage and discomfort. A cold bit not only causes pain, but can result in a head-shy horse. Consider using a bit warmer (see Bit Warmer Inc. on page 15) as it will bring the bit to a temperature compatible with your horse’s normal body temperature.
Stay Dry, Stay Warm
It is essential to provide your horses with protection from the wind and rain. This can be achieved by providing winter blankets and a well-ventilated stable, and a roomy run-in shelter facing away from the prevailing winds when they’re outside. A commonly overlooked problem is a tightly closed up barn during the cold months, which can create high humidity and dust, resulting in allergies or infectious respiratory disease.
It is also imperative that you check your horse’s water supply daily. If you get hard freezes, then a water heater is a good idea. Remember, it is vital that your horse has plenty of fresh water available to them throughout winter – they cannot possibly eat enough snow to fill their water requirements (see Hotline, pg 14).