These 6 tips will help your horses stay comfortable, safe and warm all winter long.
The onset of winter often makes horse owners worry about keeping their hooved family members safe and warm. However, they need not fret, as horses are incredible creatures and can naturally adapt to the changing weather to keep themselves comfortable during the cooler months. Even so, there are things horse caretakers can do to help their equine partners withstand those chilly nights and brisk days. Here are six simple tips to ensure a safe and healthy winter season.
Allow space for your horse to move. You might feel the desire to curl up under a blanket in your living room, but you must remember that movement generates warmth. Keeping your horse inside a stall might seem nice to you but will actually limit his natural movement. Horses are born to walk for miles and miles every single day. Exercise and regular turnout produces heat from energy burned by your horse’s muscles to ensure he stays toasty.
Maintaining a regular exercise program year-round is valuable to your horse’s mental and physical health. Not only will you keep yourself informed on his physical state and soundness, you can help keep him strong and fit. A healthy horse will have a much better chance of staying comfortable in any season.
Provide free-choice quality hay. Horses really shouldn’t go for more than two hours without snacking on forage at any time of year. Grass usually goes dormant over the winter, so offering never-ending hay is a great way to keep everything moving internally. If you’re worried about waste, consider using a hay net.
“Much of the horse’s body heat is produced by the fermentation of fiber in the hindgut. Grain provides extra calories, but to keep horses warm in winter, they need to have a steady supply of hay to keep the internal fires stoked.”
– Catherine Whitehouse, MS, nutrition advisor at Kentucky Equine Research (1)*
Many horses are comfortable with staying outside all year round as long as they have an optional shelter to utilize at their leisure. Three walls and a roof will allow your horse to escape elements like wind, sleet and mud. Body heat is easily sucked away by the air, especially on a windy day, so a shelter can act as a barrier. This is also a great place to keep your horse’s hay to entice him to stay a while.
Your decision to blanket will depend on each individual circumstance. Body condition, age, turnout facilities, winter riding schedule and wet weather need to be considered. If you do decide to blanket, make sure it’s waterproof (for horses that stay outside) and has a thick layer of insulation. You will also need to commit to putting blankets on and taking them off consistently throughout the season, to correlate with changes in temperature.
Keep in mind that unless the horse’s hair is clipped, the average healthy equine will naturally grow a thick enough coat to create his own barrier against the cold. As in humans, the horse’s hair will stand up on end. This phenomenon– called piloerection – traps air next to the body, creating an insulating layer all by itself. This will often be enough for the horse, so no blanket is needed. Do not use a sheet without insulation because it will only flatten the hair, making the horse feel colder.
5. Keep him dry
Your horse will feel his best when he’s dry, so take rain and sleet into consideration. Once the natural insulation of his hair gets wet, he’ll have a harder time staying warm. This is why providing a waterproof blanket and shelter can help reduce heat loss. It’s also important to make an effort to keep your horse’s hooves dry, since excess moisture can impact their structural integrity and lead to bacterial infections.
“Horses have a wonderful ability to survive in the cold. A full winter hair coat is perfect for insulating the horse against the cold winter weather. However, that insulation is lost if the hair coat gets wet. Providing shelter allows the horse to stay dry on wet, snowy days and, ultimately, allows them to stay warm.”
– Carrie Hammer, North Dakota State University Extension Service equine specialist (2)*
6. Groom carefully
Grooming a horse that lives outside in the winter is better than bathing him. He relies on the oils in his coat to prevent his skin from getting wet, which keeps him warm while he’s outdoors.
Quality grooming time will also give you a chance to care for his feet and check his body condition. If the horse’s body temperature lowers and he begins to shiver, he will burn calories while expending that energy, which may cause weight loss. Grooming gives you the opportunity to put your hands on your horse to ensure he isn’t too thin.
Horses have been successfully living outdoors in all climates for millions of years. They know exactly how to adapt to the environment and, as with most things in nature, we need to try not to meddle too much. Sometimes our good intentions can actually cause more problems. If you remember to follow these tips, however, you’ll set your horse up for the most comfortable winter possible!