Can horses cope with sudden cold weather?
Horses can survive and even thrive in what we consider to be very inhospitable conditions, but they do need plenty of feed to fuel them and keep them warm.
𝗧𝗼 𝗿𝘂𝗴 𝗼𝗿 𝗻𝗼𝘁 𝘁𝗼 𝗿𝘂𝗴? There is a lot of pressure to buy a complete wardrobe of rugs for our horses but is this really necessary? Horses have two main lines of defence against the winter chill: one is a layer of fat accumulated during the summer and the other is an amazing thick winter coat.
𝗗𝘂𝗿𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘄𝗶𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗿, 𝗳𝗮𝘁 𝘄𝗶𝗹𝗹 (𝗼𝗿 𝘀𝗵𝗼𝘂𝗹𝗱 𝗯𝗲) 𝗴𝗿𝗮𝗱𝘂𝗮𝗹𝗹𝘆 𝗯𝗲 𝘂𝘀𝗲𝗱 𝘂𝗽. A layer of fat is like wearing an anorak! As the fat is used, the fat-soluble vitamins stored in it, are also released. These are vitamins A, D, E and K.
𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗵𝗼𝗿𝘀𝗲’𝘀 𝘄𝗶𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗿 𝗰𝗼𝗮𝘁 𝗶𝘀 𝗮𝗻 𝗮𝗺𝗮𝘇𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗯𝗶𝘁 𝗼𝗳 𝗸𝗶𝘁. There is a dense under layer that is a really good insulator. Long, shiny guard hairs shed rain. Each hair has a tiny muscle attached which will fluff up the coat when it is cold to add even more insulation – just as birds fluff up their feathers to trap a layer of air in frosty weather.
𝗛𝗼𝗿𝘀𝗲𝘀 𝗰𝗮𝗻 𝗲𝗮𝘀𝗶𝗹𝘆 𝘁𝗵𝗿𝗶𝘃𝗲 𝗶𝗻 𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘆 𝗰𝗼𝗹𝗱 𝗰𝗼𝗻𝗱𝗶𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻𝘀. They evolved in the relatively dry, semi-desert conditions of the central Eurasian plateau. If it is windy, they turn their backs to the wind, clamp their tails to insulate their bottoms and the tail hairs spread out to shield their hindquarters. Horses act like weathervanes – they will always tell you where the wind is coming from! This winter coat is so good an insulator that snow and frost will remain on the horse’s back.
𝗥𝗮𝗶𝗻 𝗰𝗮𝗻 𝗮𝗹𝘀𝗼 𝗯𝗲 𝘁𝗼𝗹𝗲𝗿𝗮𝘁𝗲𝗱 𝘄𝗲𝗹𝗹, albeit not so well if very prolonged, except for native breeds that have had long enough to adapt to our somewhat soggy winters. Thick manes take rainwater away from necks and shoulders; the guard hairs on the body direct rain to run off, keeping the belly dry; feathers on the fetlocks act like drain down-pipes, taking water away from the pasterns and heels. Waterproofing is taken care of with the natural grease in the under coat.
𝗛𝗼𝗿𝘀𝗲𝘀 𝗹𝗼𝘃𝗲 𝘁𝗼 𝗿𝗼𝗹𝗹 𝗶𝗻 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗺𝘂𝗱! A group will share the same mud patch, sharing their group identity as well as putting on a layer of earth that will act as an additional layer of insulation and keep the wind out of their coats. Grey horses seem to roll the most. Maybe it is good camouflage when a white coat is an obvious signal to a predator.
𝗦𝗼, 𝗶𝘀 𝗮 𝗿𝘂𝗴 𝗻𝗲𝗲𝗱𝗲𝗱? Probably not if your horse has a layer of fat and some natural shelter from the wind prevailing at the time. If your horse is worked and sweats excessively, you may feel moved to clip them. Remove only what is needed to make the horse comfortable. Depending on the horse, you may then need to use a rug, but if your horse is very fat, bear in mind it is already wearing a good anorak! We do not want our horses to suffer or get hypothermia, but being a bit chilly is not a disease! A cold but healthy horse will move around more, eat more (eating is heating) and keep close to their friends to share some mutual warmth. Interestingly, a horse that is not shivering in the field may start to shiver when tied up or stabled, just showing how effective is movement. Signs your horse may benefit from a rug include shivering, being hesitant to move, losing too much weight and reluctance to move away from shelter to graze or eat hay.
𝗟𝗼𝘀𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘄𝗲𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 𝗼𝘃𝗲𝗿 𝘄𝗶𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗿 𝗶𝘀 𝗻𝗮𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗮𝗹 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗯𝗲𝗻𝗲𝗳𝗶𝗰𝗶𝗮𝗹 as it is thought to be protective against metabolic disease and the risk of laminitis. Mother Nature provides well for horses in the winter, so work with her for a happier horse and a happier you!