The Winter Equine

It’s been a fairly horrendous winter in North America. Even in the relatively sunny and usually warm Southwest, we’ve had record cold–freezes deep enough and long-lasting enough to do in a lot of the plant life, though we expect most of it to come back. What we haven’t had, somewhat ironically, is snow–though we’ve had a bit in previous years.

As you might expect, this makes horsekeeping a challenge. Horses are cold-weather organisms, designed for the steppe; their optimal temperature range is in the 50sF/low teens C. They can, with time to adapt (10-20 days on average), deal quite easily and well with temperatures well below freezing. Their winter coats are thick, have plenty of loft, and trap warmth beautifully; plus their bodies are designed to maintain heat.

What gets them is wet, and to a lesser extent wind. Anything, basically, that compromises the loft of the coat. A soaked horse is a horse without defenses against cold and wet. Add wind and you’ve got real problems.

Human meddling and convenience can complicate things even further. A horse in full winter coat, when ridden, will get sweaty especially under the saddle and on the neck and flanks, and can take hours to try. The solution in a boarding barn is to clip and then blanket him–which means he can end up with a whole range of blankets for different temperature ranges, indoor or outdoor (the latter will be waterproof and breathable as well as designed and fitted to stay put when the horse gets to running around and rolling and playing), just hanging around or being ridden or cooling out after a ride.

But external warmth isn’t all a horse owner has to worry about in winter.  Horses need to be fed differently, too–starting with more calories to help generate heat and keep weight in the cold. It’s not as simple as upping the grain ration. That in fact is a bad idea. Horse metabolism isn’t designed to handle high doses of concentrated nutrients. The horse is a grazing animal–and that means what he needs the most of is forage. Grass hay for preference, and plenty of it. He may need as much as two or three times as much hay in the winter as in the summer, to keep the same amount of weight.

But if he’s just fed lots of hay and doesn’t drink enough to keep it moving through the system, that’s bad, too. Impaction colic, expensive vet call, possible surgery with chance of not making it bad. But many horses get picky about drinking water in cold weather. Either they don’t like cold water, or worse, the water available is frozen.

Winter-savvy horses can and will break the ice in a stock tank or a bucket to drink, but not all horses are that smart, and when the cold is severe and persistent, the water supply can freeze solid.

There’s been a lot of that this winter. We were lucky here: I’m from Maine, and knew the old trick of running a hose at a trickle to keep the water running. That and exposed pipes wrapped in towels and, in one case, roll cotton and Vetrap like a horse’s leg (well, it worked!), got us through several days of completely unprecedented sub-freezing temperatures. We were able to keep the horses drinking by hauling buckets of warm water from the house, wetting hay and grain, and frequently breaking ice on barrels.

Even so, the 100-gallon tank ended up with a foot-thick coat of ice, which took three days at well above freezing to thaw.

It gave me a new appreciation of horsekeeping in the north country, where temperatures stay below freezing, with few exceptions, from October to March. In that climate, bucket heaters and heated water tanks are a godsend, and a reliable, unfrozen water supply to the barn is absolutely invaluable. Horses must drink. That’s not negotiable. Therefore a lot of thought and expense goes into keeping the water supply coming.

Where snow falls early and often, there’s the added challenge of making sure that humans can get into the barn, and horses can get out. In snow country, a heated indoor arena, at least 100 feet long and preferably even larger, is a godsend. It’s used not only for riding and training but for turning out stallbound horses when the paddocks and pastures are too snowy or icy for use. Enterprising barn staff may plow some paddocks, but that’s not always practical or even feasible.

This year there’s been a particularly horrible series of barn and arena collapses–barns “pancaked” with horses trapped under the fallen roofs. Arenas with their open structures and widely separated trusses have been exceptionally vulnerable, but even century-old barns that have withstood numerous winters have come down under the weight of snow.

Horses whose barns stay up can still run into problems outside: they may pull tendons in deep or heavy snow, and can slip and fall on ice. Their hooves are designed by nature to handle a fair range of terrain, but ice and horse hooves are not a great match. Snow can pack into the underside and create a sort of rolling clog effect, which makes balance and movement difficult. Add shoes, which make the snowpack even worse, and you’ve got a situation that requires a hammer and chisel.

There are various shoe designs that are meant to cope with winter conditions.We used to put what we called “snow treads” on our horses in New England. These would be plastic or acrylic pads that covered the base of the hoof, with the shoes applied over them. There wouldn’t be any cracks and crevices for snow to pack into; it was relatively easy to pick it out from around the shoe.

Horses shod with borium can get good traction on slippery footing, but run the risk of injuring tendons or ligaments if they get a little too much traction. Same goes for cleats, which can also injure the horse if he happens to catch one on another foot or leg. Removable studs are a more flexible option–they’re used for summer riding on grass or on hard ground, as well.

Often, if the horse isn’t going to be ridden at speed on snow or ice, and if his feet are of sufficient quality to tolerate it, his owner may opt to leave him barefoot through the winter. A bare hoof is less likely than a shod one to trap and pack snow, and has better traction on ice as well. It’s believed in some quarters that pulling shoes and “letting the hooves rest” for a few months is a good way to encourage hoof quality and give the horse a chance to move around the way nature intended.

Not all horses can do this. Some lack the genetics–their feet may be excessively small, or poorly shaped, or the quality of the hoof itself is poor: thin or brittle wall, thin sole, tendency to overgrow or undergrow the toe or heel or grow inconsistently, etc. Some have various forms of trauma, years of poor hoof care, bad farriery, poor nutrition, work schedule and nature or quality of footing that wears down hooves faster than they can recover–there are about as many reasons as there are horses.

Winter, in short, is challenging for the horse and the humans who look after him. He may be a steppe-and-tundra animal, and a cold-weather organism, but keeping him warm, hydrated, and fed is an constant and sometimes difficult process. Everyone is glad to see the spring thaw–though that will bring its own challenges. (Mud. Also, mud. And did I mention mud?)

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The Winter Equine — 7 Comments

  1. Brenda–horses can and do shiver with cold. But you also have to look for behavioral cues–lowered head, muted emotional affect, dull eye, not much energy. Fortunately, I’ve never had to deal with a soaked and bone-chilled horse, but I’ve heard plenty about it from friends with horses in cold climates that are on regular turnout.

    Sluggish behavior is also common in cold. And even a well-blanketed horse may have a sluggish response to cold. A more typical working horse response is to produce lots of energy when saddled and ridden–it’s not for nothing that the old cowboy stories of Will James feature the morning rodeo with the cavvy as cowboys top off their mounts that buck to get warmed up for the morning ride. But a well-trained performance horse that’s negatively affected by the cold in muscles and joints may simply be a slug (Miss Mocha’s modus operendi) who moves more quietly than energetically, to conserve strength and avoid pain. The same horse, if not feeling painful in the cold, may turn around and be more energetic in response to the cold in order to warm up.

  2. Horses who live outside with freedom to move around will be less likely to be sluggish in cold. They’ll go to the other extreme: lots of blasting around and getting obstreperous to keep warm. And lots of grazing and browsing–they’ll keep the calories coming.

    It’s when they’re in distress that they shut down, as Joyce noted. You can see the head go down and the flanks tuck up before the shivering starts.

    Snow btw is not usually a problem for a naked horse. It piles up on top and the horse, well insulated by a good winter coat, is perfectly happy underneath. When the storm stops, you’ll see him shake it off, toss his head, and go for a nice roll in the snow.

    Cold rain is the worst. Cold rain just above freezing, with wind, is a recipe for a sick horse. That’s when you really want him under shelter and covered to keep dry. A waterproof sheet is enough if he has a good coat.

    Many horses won’t take shelter in rain, because they don’t like the sound of it on the roof, and because instinct tells them to stay out in the open where they can watch for predators. They’ll huddle up and turn their tails to the wind and get their heads down and endure.

    Horses in a wild herd will put the babies in the middle and rotate the rest in and out, so everybody has at least some share of the mutual warmth. I believe wild yaks and musk oxen and other tundra animals do that as well.

  3. My arab mare copes really well with cold and snow (we are in Canada, and while I am in a milder part than some, we still get winter – it was in the teens faranheit this morning). But get rain and she turns into a shivering, head between her knees unhappy horse. And if she can’t get shelter (and depending on the weather, also a blanket), she will start to shiver, poor girl. Then she needs shelter plus blanky plus hay.

  4. More about water in freezing weather: after you shut off the water, if it is possible, lay the hose out on a “downhill” so it can drain itself, or lift and walk its length from the hydrant to the open end to drain it into the trough. There are also outside hydrants available that actually pull the water back into themselves until they feel “air” and then stop. This is to prevent the hydrant freezing in the winter, but people who are unaware that they have such a hydrant (if they have purchased the place and the hydrants are already in place) and leave the hose end in the trough or bucket “for convenience” will find their bucket or trough empty the next time they look at it! They will think their horse is drinking, but in fact, their hydrant is retreiving all the water, looking for that “air” that tells it that it won’t freeze up. And the horse colics, and the owner wonders why, or thinks the horse is just prone to colic.

    If I had a nickel for every barn owner I’ve had to educate on this one matter, just to save my own horses’ lives, I’d be a rich woman today! And they resist this information! As if it can not be possible! If you would like to determine if you may have one or not, try leaving your hose end in a bucket that is not accessed by any animal, and see what happens over the course of a day or overnight. A time of warm weather might be the best time for this experiment…meanwhile, always be sure you remove the “business end” of your hose from your buckets and troughs. I know YOU do, but it would amaze you the number of people I have known who did not until I kicked up a fuss about it.

    Hope this helps someone. – Jan 🙂

  5. Winter can be so awful for a horse who is in a boarding situation for sure. My boy is prone to not drinking enough in winter (one awful winter he colicked three times) but fortunately we’ve moved to a new barn with extraordinary care. The barn manager even checked the size of his pee spot to see if he was drinking enough—and when she though it was too small, he had an extra bucket put in his stall. It’s great that he has a heated water source in his turnout paddock, although teaching him to drink out of it is a continuing challenge. We’re going to put electrolytes in his indoor bucket to encourage him to drink—the mineral/salt content of the electrolytes will make him thirstier.

    I’m so looking forward to spring, even with the mud! But today we got 14 inches of snow, so it seems awfully far in the future.

  6. Yes, Winter in snow country, that means getting your roofs shoveled somewhere around the time it gets about a foot or two deep, because add some meltwater or rain to the foot or more of snow and that is what brings down the roofs.

    My husband was out shoveling his shed roof because it didn’t have enough slope to clear and we were starting to get freezing rain. It was a surprise to find out it had 3 ft of snow on it at the time, that is why some places you’ll see depth markers on flat roofs.