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.
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!