Protecting your horse from sun, wind and storms can be as simple as giving him access to a hedge, trees or hillside – or building a shelter for more complete coverage.
Some argue that shelter is as important to proper horse care as water and feed. Yet shelter is often far down the list of considerations when building a new facility or renewing an old one for a horse herd. Unprotected exposure to wind and sun in all seasons can make a horse’s life miserable, but more importantly, can compromise the health of our equine friends. Therefore, serious thought should be given to five factors concerning shade and shelter.
1. Prevailing wind and storm patterns
Before fence and shelter construction begins, consider the prevailing wind direction and how a typical summer or winter storm approaches. This is easily discovered through researching your area’s weather history and consulting neighbors familiar with local weather. In most of south-central Alberta, for instance, the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains create a prevailing flow from the west, while storms usually approach from the north or east. Shelters that give protection from these directions are quite effective for the most part, but this is not always the case. There are pockets of localized systems that can alter weather patterns, both here and elsewhere, so researching your geographical area is always best.
Unprotected exposure to wind and sun in all seasons can make life miserable, but more importantly, can compromise the health of our equine friends.
2. Use of existing topography and vegetation
Ravines, hills, trees and shrubs on a property can be used to take advantage of the shelter they might provide. These naturally-occurring changes in terrain, however, present problems of their own, especially during winter months, when the lee sides of slopes accumulate with snow and can become inhospitable for animals. Shrubs and trees can offer great protection, but the continual presence of livestock will damage and sometimes destroy the vegetation altogether. Some very hardy varieties will hold up well, though, and the best is likely the caragana. If a mature hedge of caragana exists on the property, it can be quite an asset in pasture planning. Incorporate these hedges as much as possible in the enclosure where horses will be located. In addition to winter protection, these hedges provide effective relief during fly and mosquito season.
3. Damage control
Building a shelter to withstand strong winds means paying attention to design as well as the material used in its construction. If there is an opening only at the front of the shelter, it will act as a huge parachute when facing a strong wind. This force can be powerful enough to lift and overturn very large and heavy structures, especially in the fury of a summer storm or winter blizzard. Therefore, it’s wise to leave a large gap near the top of the side and back walls to allow a release of airflow. Also question if it is necessary to enclose all three sides; consider leaving one or all sides open, especially if your goal is simply to provide shade. I have a simple shelter with only a roof for protection from sun, rain and snow. The shelter is located next to a mature and extensive caragana hedge which provides ample protection from north and west winds. There is little or no danger of this shelter being lifted off the ground by the scoop effect of a strong south wind.
It is often desirable to have a shelter that can be moved. It means you can move it to the most effective location for maximum protection. It can also cut down on clean-up as the shelter is simply moved away from manure as it accumulates. These shelters are best constructed of metal on 3” or 4” pipe skids. Used drill stem is ideal. Panels of corrugated steel are best for the roof and sides. A “lazy A” frame shelter, which incorporates a steep-sloping rather than vertical side, can also be very effective for a portable shelter. Keep in mind that the danger of portable shelters becoming kites is considerable; stake them securely to the ground each time they are moved. Again, allow for air release by not fully enclosing the shelter.
As long as a shelter is effective, the cost of construction does not have to be a huge factor. Recycled materials can be employed. Used power poles, old barn siding, discarded plywood cement forms, and retired steel grain bin panels are examples of cost-effective recycled materials for shelter construction. Rough lumber is all that’s needed for framing and roofing; in fact, it is superior in strength since the dimensions are greater than comparable finished lumber; 2” by 6” rough lumber is fine for the frame and rafters, spaced no more than two feet apart. The beams holding the roof should be bolted to the pole legs and laminated for strength. It is important that material used for framing, rafters and beams is new or inspected carefully for soundness. Instead of fencing out a hedge or row of mature trees, consider fencing these potential shelters inside the enclosure. There will be some damage, however, so if the trees are ornamental or esthetically valuable, it may be best to exclude them from the pasture, but allow the fence to pass by close enough to take advantage of the shade and shelter they can provide.
To blanket or not
I am not a big fan of horse blankets. With shelter when needed, I believe it is far better for horses to gain the toughness it takes to brave inclement weather and cold – as long as they have free-choice access to good nutritious food and clean water.
There is an exception in my books, however, and that’s during fly season in spring and summer when mosquitoes, blackflies, horse flies and other biting insects are at their peak. A light fly sheet and mask has a lot of utility and can reduce a horse’s anxiety considerably.
Shelter in summer and winter
Hydration is foremost in maintaining good horse health during the hot dry months of summer. A breeze on an 86°F (30°C) day is like a clothes dryer and sucks moisture from the horse’s body at an alarming rate, especially in regions where humidity is low. In addition to a free-choice supply of clean water, protection from warm winds contributes a lot to conserving body hydration. As the sun travels higher in the sky during summer months, heat and glare are other factors that seriously affect a horse’s comfort. Left to their own devices, horses will seek out a shady spot to rest between grazing sessions as best they can. A roofed shelter is not only kindness to these animals, it is essential to their health.
I lived for a time in the central part of the Yukon, and observed firsthand a large herd of horses that wintered on the windward-side hill of the Pelly River. This region often recorded prolonged temperatures of -76°F (-60°C) or lower during winter months. Snowfall was not considerable and a reliable spring of water made the hills a good place for these horses, who rarely came in for supplemental feed or shelter. While I do not recommend this, I am of the view that as long as horses can be protected from wind, and have a continual source of good feed and water, they can withstand extreme cold. Their bodies are capable of generating a lot of heat. Therefore, I concentrate my efforts in the winter on making sure the horses’ feed is free-choice and of superior quality, and that the stock fountains are open and clean. With the shelter of a large caragana hedge and single pitched pole shed, my horses winter happily with shiny, healthy full coats to prove it. The barn is reserved for sick bay, giving foals a few days’ start with their moms, and storing feed and tack. I don’t recommend stabling horses in dry regions, as is necessary in places where humidity is a much greater factor.