Hi there, humans! You’re looking a little bundled up lately. Bet you’re wishing you had Superior Fluff like me, huh?
Winter can be a tough time for horse owners. You’ve got to deal with mud, ice, hay down your shirt, and our daily mud packs. (We work hard to get those itchy spots behind our ears, okay?)
Sometimes I see humans get a little mixed up about what horses really need during the winter, so here’s some HorseSense for you on cold weather care, straight from the horse’s mouth.
Of course we’re going to talk about food first.
Here’s to hay — and H20
I’ve already explained how important it is for horses to have a continual supply of forage — and how we can put away 15 to 30 pounds of it in a day! Those numbers can go up during months of cold weather. Metabolizing high-fiber food helps horses produce body heat, which means we can stay warm without losing weight.
Chances are good that unless you have large, fertile pastures, your horse is not getting those pounds from the grass, which mostly stops growing after the first hard freeze. (Much to my dismay — I would always rather be eating fresh green stuff!)
It’s up to you to make up the difference by providing quality forage, ideally in the form of free choice hay that will keep your horse chewing and his acidic stomach happy.
Keep in mind that even good hay can be deficient in certain vitamins or minerals, which means your horse’s diet might need some tweaking.
If your horse is grain-free or you’re not feeding the Daily Recommend Value of your chosen grain, consider supplementing his forage with a vitamin/mineral blend during the winter months.
The other problem with the winter diet is that it’s mainly dry stuff, without the moisture we get from fresh grass. If we don’t drink enough water, we can end up with impaction colic. Worst case scenario, that can be life-threatening; best case scenario, it means a nasty nose tube for us and big vet bills for you!
Ever noticed how much water you drink during the summer and then in the winter you just kind of… stop? Horses do that, too. We’ll drink around ice if we have to, but we don’t like it, and our water intake definitely goes down unless we have a constant supply of clean, cool water. (Not icy and not hot!)
You can encourage your horse to drink more by sprinkling loose salt over his feed and keeping his water supply clean and full. Ice can be broken or melted with a bucket of hot water. If your horse lives at home, consider investing in a freeze-proof waterer for your pasture. Electrical de-icers can be an effective but riskier solution – the last thing you need is your horse to get shocked when he drinks!
Just because you feel cold doesn’t mean your horse is cold
Horses have higher body temperatures than humans, and if you think it feels pleasant outside, we’re probably hot. A healthy horse doesn’t really feel the cold until the temperatures dip down near 20 F, and might not even mind it until 0 F.
Consider that in America, feral bands of Mustangs roam across Western plains states where nothing stops the wind, and winter temperatures are frequently single digits and below.
Do you see those horses bundled up in $300 turnout blankets?
Of course not. They are protected by a clever, high-tech invention of nature… the winter coat.
Don’t let the “cute” aspect of our winter fluff fool you. A horse’s winter coat – which starts growing in late summer or early fall, due to the changes in daylight – is equipped to handle weather like a boss.
Have you ever noticed that your horse seems extra fuzzy on a windy day? That’s because the long hairs of a winter coat are programmed to stand on end in response to cold.
This creates an insulating barrier similar to a thatched roof, trapping the horse’s body heat.
Have you ever seen horses standing in a fresh snowfall with clumps of snow on their back? Don’t feel sorry for them – they’re just proving how well their coat is working. Not enough body heat can escape to melt the snow!
The winter coat gets a little help by an extra layer of “scurf,” or oily skin cells, that creates an additional weatherproof barrier, sort of like the wax you might put on your boots.
If you’ve noticed your horse has lots of dandruff in the winter, that’s why – just nature at work!
So why do so many horses wear blankets?
A horse’s natural protection system can be compromised by anything that flattens the coat, such as blankets or saddle pads, and too much grooming. And not every horse grows a long, thick coat.
That natural insulation might not be enough, particularly if the horse is underweight or in poor health.
I can grow hair like nobody’s business, but now that I’m in my third decade of being the Greatest Horse That Ever Lived, I don’t move around as much as I used to — and I find that my stiff old joints get even stiffer in the cold.
A blanket on the coldest nights can help with my comfort and mobility.
And even my magnificent coat is no defense against heavy, driving rain.
Once your horse gets soaked to the skin, he’s going to feel cold — so if your horse is like me and thinks noisy metal roofs are the Greater Evil during a storm, you might need a good waterproof turnout blanket to stop him from shivering.
You might also need to use a blanket if your horse is working hard enough to be clipped
Imagine working out in a thick ski jacket for an hour — one you can’t take off!
A horse’s heavy winter coat can easily get soaked through with sweat. That means a lot of cooling down time, unless you want your horse to get chilled because you put him away wet.
Clipping, or shaving off part or all of the winter coat, can make your horse way more comfortable.
I’m actually so good at growing hair that I get too hot in Georgia’s warm fall weather, so I get a strip clip now to keep from overheating. (Dragon mares are extra hot due to all the fire, you know!)
Once you remove a horse’s coat, it’s up to you to keep him protected from the elements. How you blanket him is going to depend on the weather, the humidity, and the kind of clip he has.
Keep in mind that a blanket flattens any winter coat he does have – which means you’ll need to choose one warm enough to make up for it.
At the same time, you don’t want your horse to get hot and sweat under his blanket
This makes the situation ten times worse, as overheating can cause a number of health problems and a wet coat gets us seriously chilled when the temperature drops.
One of my pet peeves is when people leave blankets on their horses during a sunny, mild day to save time during evening chores. Put yourself in your horse’s shoes. Nobody wants to be sweaty, stinky and wet all day!
Some basic advice caring for a horse in all weather:
And try not to let the winter blues get you down!
Winter can be a great opportunity for us to spend some non-demanding quality time together. Take your horse for a long walk, or learn a little groundwork, or let him hand graze on some actual green grass.
You might actually start to enjoy winter a little bit — even without a fluffy coat!