This article is provided by the Horse Industry Association of Alberta
“But isn’t he cold?” As a horse owner, you’ve likely heard this question from non-horsey friends or family members. You smile and assure the well-intentioned onlooker that your horse is fine, quite comfortable in the -20 winter day. The sun is shining, the frost is sparkling on the fence rails and Trigger is out enjoying a bit of winter grazing.
But when the temperature dives and the wind begins to blow, even the hardiest of us can be tempted to turn on the heat in the barn or blanket our “babies”. Question is…when is it necessary, when is it kind and when is it actually counter-productive?
The horse’s first and most obvious protection from winter’s chill is his heavy winter coat. The hair is not only long but has the ability to “fluff”, trapping warm air close to the body, much like a down jacket. The oil in the coat assists in shedding moisture, keeping the coat functioning as it’s supposed to. The metabolism of the horse will slow down in cold weather, allowing him to store fatty tissue just under the skin, adding a layer of insulation. Internally, the horse’s digestive system is also at work keeping him warm. As the gut digests the fibre in the diet, heat is generated, contributing to the horse’s body warmth. One of the best ways to help keep a horse warm in the winter is to allow him plenty of access to good quality forage, whether in the form of pasture or hay.
If the horse gets cold, the blood vessels in his skin constrict to minimize heat loss and, if he continues to be cold, he starts to shiver. The rapid contracting and relaxing of the muscles quickly raises his metabolism rate and the amount of fuel burned in the muscles. With such large blocks of muscle, the horse can shiver much more readily and comfortably than a human. Since most of this muscle action is being converted to heat, this is a very effective way to warm the body. However, it takes a great deal of energy to shiver for a prolonged period, using up energy stores that will require increased feed intake or result in a loss of body condition.
So do blankets help or hinder the horse’s efforts to stay warm? In truth, a normal winter hair coat is much more insulating than most horse blankets. Adding a heavy blanket or piling on several light blankets, can actually make a horse colder because it flattens the hair, removing its ability to fluff and insulate as it was designed to do. In some cases however, a blanket may be necessary, as in the case of a clipped horse, one recently moved from a warmer climate or one with poor body condition.
And what about indoor stabling during storms or cold weather? Do we need a barn? The biggest threats to a horse’s comfort are wind and wet, both impacting the winter coat’s ability to do its job. Some form of protection from the wind is paramount with outdoor horses. Whether it’s a thick stand of trees, a wind fence, a building or a run-in shed, horses need shelter from the wind. A shelter with a roof will keep them out of the wind and will also do a better job at keeping them dry. A wet horse loses body heat up to 20 times faster than a dry horse due to the loss of the coat’s insulating effect when wet.
Even in the nastiest of weather conditions, in most cases, stabling indoors falls into the “kind” versus the “necessary” category, and is probably as beneficial to your ability to get a good night’s sleep as it is to your horse’s health. Exceptions might be in the case of a very young, very old, ill or otherwise compromised animal. If you are stabling indoors, make sure your building has adequate ventilation and dust is kept to a minimum.
A few tips to keep your horses a little more comfortable this winter…
1. Provide access to good quality forage in the form of pasture or hay and increase when the temperatures drop.
2. Provide free access to lukewarm water. If your horse is drinking frigid water he will use energy to re-warm himself after drinking and will also be inclined to drink less.
3. Provide shelter from the wind, enough for all horses in the pasture. Less dominant horses can be pushed out of shelters that are not large enough to house the whole herd.
4. Blanket only if the horse does not have an adequate winter coat or body condition, and choose a waterproof, windproof turnout blanket with the right amount of insulation.
5. If possible, feed in an area sheltered from the wind. This will help your horses conserve heat and reduce the amount you need to feed.
6. Provide a turnout area large enough for horses to run and play to warm themselves.
7. Brush out the horse’s coat if it becomes matted from manure or other moisture.
8. You don’t want a fat horse, but allowing your horse to move from a body condition of 5 to a 6 or even 7 for the winter will help him stay warm.
If you’ve got some other tips for keeping our equine friends comfy through our cold, Alberta winters, send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org