Last Updated on December 26, 2022
With farrier schedules, shots, deworming, and perpetual vet bills, it seems hard to imagine horses in the wild. As horse blankets and tank deicers are coming out for the cold season, it can raise many questions about a horse’s cold tolerance. Do horses get cold in the winter? As a mammal subject to regulated internal body temperatures, the short answer is YES! Horses do get cold in the winter! But what can we do about it, and how do we know?
How Horses Combat Cold Weather
Contrary to popular belief, horses grow a winter coat based on decreased sunlight hours rather than a decrease in temperature. This is why some horses will still get “fuzzy” during an unseasonably warm fall and winter. When sunlight hours decrease, melatonin production increases which result in hair growth (winter coats). Although a winter coat is designed to protect horses from the elements, the hair alone may not be enough to keep a horse comfortable. Factors such as wind and rain can negate the protective properties of their natural coat. Horses will then utilize trees and other structures for shelter and wind blocks. Although cold rain might be enough to cause chills, strong gusts and a soaked/cold coat may.
It seems many topics address a horse’s natural grazing behavior. As foragers, the digestive system plays a significant role in the horse’s bodily functions, far beyond just processing nutrients. Horses are able to auto-regulate their internal temperature through movement and eating. When food is digested, heat is produced to help keep the horse warm. The highest amounts of heat are released when the gut microbes digest high-fiber food, such as grass or hay. Walking around the pasture or playing will also help keep horses warmer than if they are stabled with a lack of movement.
How Cold is too Cold for Horses to be Outside- Cold Tolerance Variables
Horses are well equipped to handle cold temperatures without human assistance when wind blocks, shelter, and food are available. However, there are many variables (both man-made and naturally occurring) that may prevent a horse from properly maintaining proper body heat.
Factors such as old age and illnesses greatly impact a horse’s ability to maintain body weight, and in turn, handle the heat. Horses become more susceptible to illness or bothered by cold weather in their elderly years due to decreased digestion speed and efficiency, arthritis pains, or lack of excess body weight. Some older horses may struggle to grow a thick and wooly winter coat, and the actual hairs may become finer with age. Some horses are naturally very lean and from warmer climates and may struggle in a new area with extremely low temperatures. Any horse is susceptible to becoming cold in the winter without access to shelter or forage to graze on.
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Unfortunately, many horses unable to handle cold temperatures have this intolerance due to human interference. Winter coats are frequently impacted or removed by the use of lights in the barn (to “extend” daylight hours and keep melatonin production low). Many owners, especially those riding or showing, will full-body clip or trace-clip horses throughout the winter as well.
Non-grassy turnout or pastures will affect a horse’s warmth. If a horse cannot graze throughout the day, they will struggle to produce enough internal heat. Removing the ability to move around freely, such as full-time stall-use, will also impact heat production and body temperature regulation. If a horse is turned out in cold weather but the owners do not provide a proper wind block and/or shelter, a horse may become chilled once the hair is soaked from rain or snow. High winds easily penetrate the fuzzy layers on a horse directly to the skin, making winter winds a major factor in cold intolerance.
Fortunately, there are many ways for us to help keep horses warm in the winter. The most important thing you can provide your horses with is shelter. Horses can use shelters with siding as a wind block as well. Horses lose the ability to get out of the elements when kept in captivity, so providing shelter is a human responsibility.
Many owners use blankets in the winter. The Equine Program at Auburn University created a viral flow chart that has become a winter-time staple. Horses without good coats, elderly or sickly horses, and horses without adequate wind blocks greatly benefit from blanketing. Although it is not typically recommended, some owners will even heat their barns.
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But, what happens when a horse gets too cold? With winter quickly approaching, it’s important to gauge your horse’s ability to tolerate the cold. If you’ve got friends with livestock or horses, be sure to share this article!
Do horses hooves get cold in snow?
The hooves normally don’t suffer from the low temperatures. The tissues from which the hooves consist are not very sensitive to cold. Hooves are very strong and hard, with the outer surface covered in scales and keratin. Therefore it’s not a problem for a horse to walk in snow. Actually, also the lover part of horse’s legs (below the knee) is not overly sensitive to cold. The reason for this is that horse’s leg is covered with hair, which protects it from the cold.
Do horses need blankets in winter?
As horses sweat during the exercise, a blanket will help keep their coats dry and protect them from the cold. This is specially true for performance horses as they are often clipped to control their winter hair growth and to be able to exercise and train without overheating. A well-made, quality blanket is needed in this case to help keep them warm in low temperatures. Blankets also keep your horse’s coat clean, which is especially important when you’re riding outside. Always use a quality blanket that is appropriate for your horse’s weight, age and activity level.
How do horses stay warm in winter?
Horses have two types of hair, the summer coat and the winter coat. The summer coat is the lighter, thinner hair which grows in the warmer weather. The winter coat is the thicker, denser hair that grows in the colder weather.
The hair of the winter coat are more coarse, thicker, and longer than the hair of the summer coat, and serve to keep the horse warm by trapping air around the body. The winter coat also provides protection from rain and snow. Horses with a thick winter coat are often called “cold-blooded”, because they can easily keep their body temperature within a narrow range.
Can horses stay outside in the winter?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has no guidelines for the duration of winter housing for horses. But for those horses who do live outdoors, they should be provided with shelter from the wind and rain, as well as protection from extreme temperatures.
Cold temperatures alone don’t usually make horses uncomfortable, but wind and moisture can be difficult for them to tolerate, so they must be able to escape the elements if the weather is too extreme.
How cold is too cold for horses to be outside?
In contrast to the high temperatures we experience in the summer months, the lower temperatures and humidity we see in the winter months can be hazardous to horses’ health. Depending on their hair coat, horses are the most comfortable at temperatures between 18° and 59° F. Temperatures of less than 0° Fahrenheit are still acceptable, specially if the horse is not exposed to the wind and moisture. But if the horses are stabled or have the access to a shelter or shed that is well insulated, they can tolerate temperatures as low as -40° F.
Equestrian, Marine Corps vet, and Morgan horse enthusiast.