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Horses in Cold Weather

Horse in blanket. Courtesy Horse & RiderQuestion: How do I know if my horse is cold? I put him out in cold weather with a shed, but he will not go in it. I am not sure how many blankets he needs to keep warm.

Answer: Horses are much better adapted to the cold weather than we give them credit for. They grow an excellent winter coat that insulates them and keeps them warm and dry down to the skin. However, there are some factors to take into consideration when deciding how to manage our horses in the winter. Horses are healthier if given plenty of outdoor time which allows them to adjust to the temperatures and helps them breathe fresh air (read my article about fresh air). Think about how warm a 45 degree day feels after it has been 20 degrees for a couple weeks. The first day in the fall that it is 45 degrees feels extremely cold.

Let’s look at horses in nature. In the fall they put on extra weight so they have fat reserves to burn to keep warm in the winter. This is the reason our domestic horses (dogs, cats and humans, too) always seem to get fat in the fall. In winter the main food available is roughage, dead or dormant grasses and weeds. Roughage, and that includes hay, actually helps warm the horses because it releases heat as it is digested. Have you noticed that your horses eat more hay on very cold days? They are keeping warm. So our wild horses eat roughage and often lose weight during the winter, but they survive well and are ready to gain weight rapidly in the spring. (Unfortunately, we have fed our domestic horses well during the winter, so they do not need all that spring grass because they can founder or at least get obese.) In nature, horses stay warm by moving around, since they often have to travel to get unfrozen water, and we all know how much exercise keeps us warm–just clean your barn and sweep your aisle to find out.

Now let’s look at our modern well-kept horse. They are fat and well-fed so no problem in that department. Most have plenty of hay to keep them warm on a cold day and most have shelter from the wind and rain (either in the woods, shed or barn). It is good to give them more hay on a cold night, or at least the choice to eat more. But if your horse is in and the barn is closed up and it’s 40 degrees inside, he does not need extra hay. Outside horses with a round bale often do not move much; they leave the round bale only to get water (at least that is what my lazy beasts do). So movement to keep warm does not occur much. However, if you are observant, you will notice that every now and then all your horses will run around for no apparent reason–but the reason actually is to get warm. Then they go back to eating.

Winter Coats

Two horses are in the snow, one with a blanket, one without. Notice the unmelted snow on the unblanketed horse. His fur is working by insulating him. His body heat is not escaping; if his fur did not work the snow would melt immediately. The unblanketed horse has the same amount of unmelted snow on his back as the blanketed one. Eventually since the horse is warmer than the frozen ground the snow will melt on both of them. The problem we humans have when we pat our horses in the winter is that they feel cold to touch, but this is because their fur has insulted them and is keeping all the warmth next to the skin. Horses can have icicles hanging off their fur and be perfectly warm underneath.

Blankets

There are a few reasons to use blankets and a bunch not to. Horses who are clipped need to be blanketed, since we have taken their fur off. There are many wonderful, lightweight and well-fitting blankets on the market (blanket fit is for another day). Old horses who cannot keep warm need blankets, even if they never needed them when they were younger. In nature those old horses would have been eaten by a mountain lion, so they would not need a blanket. Horses who have been sick, are too thin, have been rescued or have any other health problems may need blankets. Some individuals of any age are cold-natured and really do need to be blanketed, as do horses who have no shelter. The rest of the unclipped population does not.

How many blankets do horses need? That depends on how much clipping has been done and the weather conditions. However, in most cases a single blanket will do the trick, with heavy blankets being used in the cold weather. You can stick your hand under the blanket and if it is toasty and warm, it is heavy enough for the weather. If it feels cool under the blanket, you may need a heavier one. Please do not get a great fitting outer blanket and add an old-fashioned design sheet underneath. The sheet does not add much warmth, and it usually rubs the shoulders and causes a lot of pain.

If you choose to blanket and start early in the season you will need to keep it up, since the horse will adapt to wearing it, and his temperature regulation will be accustomed to it. Most of the time we blanket because we humans are cold and think our horses must be, too. A vet friend of mine visiting early one December from Vermont remarked that the horses she saw in Virginia had many more layers of blankets on in December than her clients’ horses had on in Vermont in January. Hmmm… they are all horses, right? So what is the difference? Vermont owners are accustomed to the cold, so they expect their horses to be adapted as they are. Virginia owners see much less cold weather, so they think their horses are cold when they are cold. The horses in Vermont were all warm and happy with single blankets.

If you do blanket, remember that a horse’s fur fluffs out when it is cold. This adds air space like your down jacket has, and that air fills with warmth making the fur more efficient. Blankets crush down that air space, so you need a heavy enough blanket to provide true warmth. A thin sheet may protect a horse from rain, but it may not provide much warmth and may leave the horse colder than if he had no blanket.

How do you tell if your horse is warm enough? You have to get to know your horse and pay attention to small behaviors. Horses who are cold tend to huddle up in a sheltered place and may not be willing to go out into the pasture area even to eat hay to keep warm. They may really crave their stalls. They may shiver. However, shivering is also just a perfectly normal way to warm up, so a warm horse may shiver for a short while when he is cold and be happy. The cold horse will be seen shivering much more frequently or when all the other horses are not. Wet cold weather is harder on horses than dry cold, and a rainy 35-degree day will cause a lot more shivering than any other weather condition. Horses really appreciate some sort of shelter on those wet days, so they can dry off a bit and get warm. But it will not hurt a healthy horse to be outside and get wet and shiver a bit. Sheds are most used on rainy days, while a 10-degree day with snow may not find a single horse near the shed since they are happy in the cold.

Sweating

Clipping a working horse in the winter becomes a necessity when you work hard enough to break a sweat. Sweat adds moisture from the skin out, which means the dry fluffy fur cannot work. Horses will get very cold if not dried off completely after working. Heavy winter coats do not dry easily, since the fur is very dense and is designed to not let water penetrate (so that the horse can stay warm when it is raining). Since many of our high quality blankets do breathe and allow water vapor to pass through them, it is possible to put a blanket on a horse who is well cooled out but still a bit damp and let him dry underneath it. But you cannot put a blanket on a warm or hot horse as they will just sweat more. Some horses, especially those with a partial clip, will sweat anyway under a blanket if not totally cool and dry.

Horses left blanketed in warm weather will sweat quite a bit under the blanket. This is a problem when you leave home for work at 5 a.m. when it is 15 degrees out, and by noon it is 60 degrees. There is no perfect answer, but unclipped horses can end up with rain rot and skin infections when they sweat for hours and do not properly dry out. See if a friend could stop over and take blankets off later in the morning, if possible. Or perhaps put a lighter blanket for the day–it may not be perfect, but it would be more comfortable than being too hot for most of the day.

So let your horses enjoy the cold weather, and go out for a ride. There is no temperature where it is too cold for a horse to be ridden or to go outside if they are adapted to it. There are some weather conditions in the far north where the extreme cold makes it very uncomfortable for man or beast to go out, but mostly that is because our pastures do not have enough space for natural wind breaks of deep gullies and forest, which would be present out on a 10,000 acre range. Enjoy the winter.

Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia.

 

Categories: All About Horses, Horse Care, Horse Health.

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30 Responses

  1. WELL I WAS THINKING PUTTING A BLANKET ON A HORSE WHO IS COMING OUT OF FOUNDER. I LIVE IN FAIRBANKS ALASKA AND SAVED A MAIDEN MARE 2 WEEKS AGO AND SHE IS NOW LIVING IN A ROUND PEN WITH SAND. IT IS GETTING COLD UP HERE AND WE DO NOT BLANKET UNTIL -30. SHE MIGHT BE THE EXCEPTION BECAUSE OF HER TUFF LUCK FOR THE WINTER. GUESS I HAVE TO WAIT TOSEE.

    ANNIE COPESeptember 12, 2012 @ 8:35 pmReply
  2. -30, most people in the UK would have died well before those temps. It’s amazing how nature takes care of itself. Goodluck with your rescued pony.

  3. I never blanket any of my horses, and I never clip their fur (or even trim ears) during the winter. With a little extra hay on cold days, they have done fine!

  4. 49 degrees out and raining light all day. My horses were ridden yesterday and the boys got in late (after feed time). They cooled them down but didn’t dry due to the weather. They have been shivering all day. I feed this morning and it’s noon now so I feed some Bermuda hay. Still shivering. Are they alright???

  5. Wonderfully informative article. I was about to scream at my neighbor for leaving her horses out in the rain, cold and snow without any run in barn or shelter. They have blankets. It was keeping me awake at night (worrying about them) but I didn’t know anything about horses until I read this. I was comparing horses to dogs:-) You saved me from making a fool of myself again and now I can worry less even though a possible blizzard is coming and I know they’ll be standing in it!

  6. I have recently rescued a horse from the Amish. She is 13 years old and blind. Even though it is May in UpState NewYork we still have nights when it gets down to 39 and raining. I worry about her because she is new to the open pasture and she is blind and very untrusting of the shed and she will not go in it. She dosnt have a blanket yet and I am still worried about her on these cold wet nights.

    Nikki CaseMay 13, 2013 @ 5:12 amReply
  7. One thing people should watch out for is barometric colic. This is caused by extreme fluctuations in the weather. We had a horrible winter here in southern Ontario last year…2012. Lots of wet snow, freezing rain for about a week and then boom it goes to -25 for about a day or 2…and then back up to 0 with wet snow freezing rain again. That was from Oct 1 right through to May. This year I have the option to stall my drafts and Shetland ponies. Even though they adapt to extreme weather (my one draft mare did barometric colic however), I will be stalling them in the arena stalls so they will be out of the weather but not hot from being in the main barn . If your readers have that option it might be worth considering. I did feel bad for them when they would give me those sad eyes last winter wondering why they were not coming in for the night like some of the other horses were. I wont be blanketing them though because they do grow the double coat and your right they seem to be ok with that. If it hits -40 or 50 extreme , they will not go out for the day , they can play in the arena. Talk about extreme daycare!!!

    • Well, from my point of view (I might be wrong) and from my 20+ years or horse experience, there are two factors to consider when a horse suffers from barometric colic. The first one is that yes, it is too cold outside, which is a very relative statement. And the second thing to consider is that some horses are more fragile than others; therefore, they might be more prone to colic. The immune system of an old horse or of a young horse might not be strong enough anymore or yet… So yes, I will intervene and provide my horse with a more proper/safer setting. My problem with blanket is that once you start blanketing, you have to provide for everything that Nature would have. And unfortunately, I have seen a lot of skin fungal infections, due to blankets left on horses too long, assuming that once on, it will do the job no matter what, as if Nature was going to take care of it.

  8. I can’t find an answer to this question anywhere? I am outside of Dallas, TX. It’s going to be in the 30′s for several consecutive days. My vet says to blanket anytime the temp hits anywhere in the 30s. My question is: How many CONSECUTIVE days should I leave the blank on my horse? He has two barns, lots of trees and has free range on 4 acres. I’ve been leaving the blanket on him and taking it off once every 24 hours to massage and brush then put it right back on. thanks,
    nancy at nancywatts@live.com

    nancy wattsNovember 24, 2013 @ 9:49 pmReply
    • Nancy, I would keep the blanket on as long as it’s cold. You’re doing the right thing to take it off and groom him.

      Dale LeathermanNovember 26, 2013 @ 8:03 pmReply
  9. Iteresting, not on blankets, but we have had msres abort when weather does extreme changes. Barometer drops or jumps irradicaly.

  10. I live in Wisconsin, it’s -7 F without the much colder windchill. The amish have been going buy all morning as they do everyday. Their buggies are pulled by unclipped horses who are obviously working hard. The wagons with metal wheels, laden with feed are usually pulled by two draft horses, which are also unclipped and sweating. I know some of these animals are on roundtrips of 20 miles or more(buggies) although for most it’s probably more like 4 or 5. This has bothered me for years but seems to be a perfectly acceptable practice. Should I just relax?

    • Since they depend on their horses, I assume they take good care of them, but I haven’t seen them, as you have. Maybe you could ask one of the Amish what they do at the end of the trip, when their horses are sweaty and it’s cold.

    • The horses are work animals for the Amish….they depend on them.

      Our horses are our pets more or less unless one does pulls on stumps or has a trail outfit

      Pet horses….coddled like mine…live longer.

      But how the Amish work their horses unless truly abusive beatings or starving them….is not anyones business

      We live in a soft world now full of indulgence.

      Power goes out for two weeks and our horses will be targets for food.

      Modern western culture is so weak about the state of our affairs….and busybodies…

      Williamson county TN…..Hanoverians and TBs

      I do not blanket and have a run in barn and increase supplemental food by half

      Temps here now are neg 5 to 25

      Coldest winter ever….my horses are waiting like I have never seen…..I keep them fed good..my pasture pets

  11. Well here it’s -37C and I do not blanket my horses. they are eating more hay and they also have a shelter if there is wind, however we bring them in in the morning to clean there hoofs because they are ice-packed and while they are inside I put a blanket on them. they are a happy group. I do have a question though about giving them a mixture of oats and molasses at night???

  12. It’s going to dip down to -30F here in WI in the next couple of days, with -50 wind chills. All of our horses have shelter, and great care. Round bales, everyone’s on the fat side, and they’re out 24/7. They have been outside the whole time so have adapted well to the seasons. So for the cold snap, is it better to blanket or not? I think that by blanketing I may harm his natural temperature regulation, your thoughts on this exceptionally cold weather?

  13. I live in Alabama and it’s going to be 23f. Tonight. I have an app about 14h 12yrs.old if it’s cold wind he goes for low ground in the woods. Cold with no wind,he stands where I feed him. He stands in the rain beside the barn.they really are individuals.down here it’s blazing hot summer and mild winter compaired to some of y’all. It gets in the 20′s at night and usually recovers to at least 45-50. People around here put blankets on their horses but,I think it’s ridiculous. The only thing that always bothered me was,like today rained all day and tonight will freeze. Bucky don’t mind. He’s standing by the barn.

  14. Actually the Amish abuse their animals all the time

  15. Why do you put a blanket on them when you bring them inside?

  16. We live in upstate New York, and even with this last cold snap of -30 we never blanket our horses. Their coats are thick, they’re healthy, they have lots of hay, and they can come in if they choose. They don’t, though, they’re happier outside!

    Robynne CatheronJanuary 26, 2014 @ 2:34 amReply
  17. Be careful and wary of barometic colic! My draft cross mare did the same in the winter of 2012 in Barrie, Ontario as the earlier poster mentioned. Extremes in temperature will cause a chill..try to maintain an even temperature for your horses at all times as best you can. Don’t take them from a warm barn and put them outside without a blanket. It’s a shock to their very sensitive sytems.

  18. After a run of beautiful weather here in northern Nevada, ( days in the mid 50′s, nights in the low teens ), I woke this morning to 9 inches of snow, but the temperature was 32 degrees. At 6:30 I went out to feed my two horses, and after handling temperatures as low as minus 8 degrees with no shivering and no blanketing, for some reason this morning they were both shivering. Well, instead of running for their warm, heavy blankets, I watched their reactions, and the instant I put their feed in their feeders, the shivering had stopped by at least 95 percent. I checked them ten minutes later and it had stopped completely. They may have been slightly chilly, but I think the excitement of eating actually caused them to shiver harder. They both have nice dry shelters to get in to, but I almost always find them standing right out in what ever weather happens to be occurring. I don’t think these animals get as cold as we think they do. With proper food and clean water, these horses can handle almost anything Mother Nature throws at them. Letting their coats grow naturally and providing good food and water is the absolute best care we can give our friends. If you body clip for shows, sure you’ll need to blanket, and if the horse is sick or old, of course it’s necessary, but if you feed them right, provide voluntary shelter and let nature take it’s course, your horse should be able to handle almost any weather that comes their way.

  19. I live in Northern Minnesota, this year, record colds for weeks on end. I have owned horses for years up here. They still amaze me with their toughness. I have a big 20 acre pasture, mostly long cured grasses, some woods, and a barn large enough for all five horses to come into. Old timers here maintain that horses just need all you can eat hay during the cold. do not blanket, or keep inside, take off all shoes, let them decide where they will go. They are outside at -25 F and eating off of a round bale of good grass hay. The other day it was -35F, they were all out in the large pasture digging through two feet of snow for the long grass underneath. I rarely see them in the barn, except in the summer they camp in there to get out of the flies, and biting sand flies. These horses are not pampered. They are not just pasture ornaments either. We do 50 mile endurance races with them. My question is this: I have been giving them a small supplement of soaked beet pulp and a maintenance pelleted feed, how much of this would be too much, when it takes away from the heat generation of the rough grass hay/bacteria. In another way: if maximum heat is generated by bacteria converting cellulose in the fully grown grass hay, how much of that heat generating capability am I losing by adding other things to the horses diet?

  20. when I get my ponies ( a mini Shetland and a rescue Irish cob ) over here to Finland from the UK they will be being stabled in the winter, out in the daytime, not because of the cold weather but due to the wild predators that come out at night. I know they will both grow fantastic winter coats but I will be putting a rug on them when out because they come in at night. I am just trying to figure out how much to feed them because Shetlands hold weight well and are also prone to laminitis which I do not want my boy to get.



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Continuing the Discussion

  1. [...] googling for info I found a great article on Discoverhorses.com quoting Dr. Joyce Harman, “There is no temperature where it is too cold for a horse to be [...]