In certain parts of North America, the winters can be unforgiving: long, cold, and wet, with often extreme temperature variations. In fact, it can snow, sleet, and rain on the exact same day. It’s tough on humans, but what effect does freezing temperatures have on our hooved companions?
Fortunately, horses are hardy creatures and have a few mechanisms to keep themselves warm. That said, we can help them get through the chillier months by preparing them well and taking a few precautions.
Here’s what you need to know to keep your horses warm, dry, and healthy during the harsh winter months.
What Is Thermoregulation in Horses?
Horses are homeothermic (warm-blooded) and endothermic animals, which means they produce heat through their bodies and can maintain their temperature within narrow limits despite variations in ambient temperature.
Thermoregulation is the set of mechanisms that enable the horse to maintain its body temperature between 99°F and 101.5°F. The lower critical temperature (LCT) is the temperature below which a horse needs extra energy to maintain its body heat. The LCT for horses is between 41°F (with a summer coat) and 18°F (with a winter coat).
That said, thermoregulation is the result of complex biological processes influenced by many environmental factors, not just ambient temperature. For this reason, the LCT is not a fixed value but depends on factors such as age, acclimatization, coat, diet, and overall health of the horse.
The bottom line is that when the ambient temperature drops, the horse has to work harder to produce heat and maintain its core body temperature; otherwise, it risks suffering from hypothermia, frostbite, or other health issues.
So, How Do Horses Keep Warm?
Horses have a marvelous ability to survive the cold and limit heat loss due to these interesting features and mechanisms of their bodies.
Natural insulation: The horse’s winter coat, the thickness of its skin and the extra layer of fat serve as insulation when the temperature drops.
Vasoconstriction of blood vessels: In cold weather, there is a decrease in blood flow to the surface of the horse’s skin, which helps retain heat necessary for the functions of vital internal organs. Thus, the horse loses less body heat.
Shivering: Shivers are involuntary muscle contractions and help produce heat.
Digestion: The horse’s digestive system generates a lot of heat. The fermentation of fiber by gastro-intestinal bacteria produces a large amount of heat. Increased feeding of good quality hay helps to keep horses warm and provide the energy they need and insulating fat during the winter months.
What Are the Best Ways to Keep Your Horses Warm in the Winter?
Despite their natural defense mechanisms against the cold, horses can benefit from a helping hand from humans in the colder months. You can help your horses get through winter by providing them with the proper care.
If you plan to keep your horses outside in the winter, you need to allow them to gradually acclimate to the cold weather and develop their winter coat. This is also called winterization. This can be done by simply leaving your horses outside during the fall. This will help your horses gradually adjust their metabolism to the colder environment by eating more and developing a thicker coat.
Food and Water
Good quality hay in sufficient quantities is even more important in winter. During the cold season, the horse’s energy demand increases to counter the loss of heat in the environment. Therefore, horses kept outside during the cold season need to increase their hay intake to keep warm.
Water is another essential element for maintaining good health during the winter. Horses kept outside must have access to clean, non-icy water at all times. You can use a heated water tank to prevent the water from freezing. On average horses need more water during the winter as they are not getting as much water from their food. In the summer they consume fresh grass which has more water than dry hay.
A shelter is crucial so the horses can protect themselves from the biting cold and any wind and precipitation. A large enclosure with a roof enables horses to move freely and increase the heat production of their muscles through exercise.
Keeping horses warm with blankets can be beneficial in certain situations:
Although your horse’s hooves will grow more slowly during the winter they still need attention. A farrier should visit every 6 to 12 weeks depending on your individual horse. It is important to check the hooves daily and to clear out any stones, mud or snow impactions. A horse with an injury or impacted hooves will not be able to move around freely and may find it harder to stay warm.
How Do You Know If Your Horse Is Cold?
Watch your horse’s body language and demeanor to determine if they are cold. Here are a few signs that could give you a clue:
Take action to improve conditions for your horse.
Horses have special characteristics that enable them to withstand inclement temperatures. That said, if you provide them with additional care and attention, these superb animals can stay comfortable and healthy even through the harshest winter months. Acclimatization, access to shelter, proper food and water management, and the use of blankets in certain situations will keep your horses cozy and happy.
Featured Image Credit: Tomasz Koryl, Shutterstock
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