How do horses stay warm?

Have you ever noticed on those blistery cold days, when you dread going outside, that your horses seem fresh and content?

Have you ever noticed on those blistery cold days, when you dread going outside, that your horses seem fresh and content?

Are they really enjoying the cold weather as much as they appear? Unquestionably, yes! How can they be so happy in the playing outside in the snow when we cringe at the thought of going outside? It’s simple, they are made for it!

A horse begins to prepare for winter just after the summer solstice (June 22nd ish) when his body recognizes the shortening of the days. This triggers hormones that shift his coat into a growth phase, pushing the summer hairs out of the follicles as the winter hair grows.

This explains why you might have noticed that your horse appears to shed in late-summer.

Horses exposed only to warm weather conditions in this late June-October period may only grow a light winter coat, while horses exposed to colder conditions will grow a longer, thicker coat.

The longer, thicker coats trap more dirt and oils against the skin, resulting in a layer of insulation that helps to keep the horse warm and dry.

The coarse, fluffy winter coat stands up (rather than lying flat like a sleek summer coat) and traps a layer of warm air close to the body.

This process is called piloerection. The blood vessels in the skin constrict from the cold and the hair shafts stand up on end.

This winter coat is amazingly functional.

It is a mixture of thick, dense hairs and long, coarse “guard” hairs. The coat lays in a downward (toward the ground) tilt encouraging rain and snow to glide down and off the horse. This discourages the moisture from saturating the horse and causing him to get chilled from being damp in the cold. It’s like a waterproof jacket!

When the temperature drops, the horse’s appetite increases. An increased consumption of food is the body’s way of putting on a few extra pounds of winter “insulation” in the form of fat.

This light layer of body fat under the skin is the horse’s next level of defense against the winter cold.

Internally, digestion is the primary warming process. The digestion of fibre (hay) in the cecum and large intestine results in the production of heat. This internal furnace keeps the horse warm in cold weather.

Like any furnace, it requires something to run on and in the case of your horse, its hay and lots of it!! In the bitter cold your horse should have a constant supply of good quality hay to keep his furnace going.

A cold horse may start to shiver. Shivering is a very effective way of raising the horse’s internal body temperature. The rapid tensing and releasing of the large muscle groups (which occurs 10-20 times per second) quickly warms the horse. Because it requires a great deal of energy stores, shivering is only a short term warming remedy. Horses should not be left to shiver for extended periods of time.

Even the way horse’s respiratory systems are designed aid in keeping them warm.

The long, spiral shaped tube (called a turbinate) that inhaled air travels through in the nose, helps to warm the air before it reaches the lungs. This prevents heat loss that could potentially cool the horse’s core.

Aren’t they amazing? Our horses are designed to stay warm in extreme temperatures, but there are things we can do to help.

Proving shelter from the wind, snow and rain is one of the basic horse keeping essentials. Large numbers of horses kept together need multiple shelters and/or windbreaks. Trees provide shade in summer but are of little value in winter.

Providing a constant supply of good quality hay is important. Feeding multiple times daily or free choice are both options.

Be aware that in the coldest of days, your horse will drink less than usual.

Partially because the sensation of ‘thirst’ is less in winter and partially because drinking cold water when it’s cold outside isn’t necessarily pleasant.

I like to feed our outside horses warm beet pulp all winter; I simply soak beet pulp in really hot water until it has fully expanded. I mix loose salt into the beet pulp. This increases the water intake for the horse (because beet pulp is wet) and the salt encourages the horses to drink.

Impaction colic in winter is common because of the decreased water consumption.

Beware of using a winter blanket just because you want to help your horse stay warm. Blanketing an unclipped horse can actually cause him to be colder as the hair is unable to stand up under the winter blanket. Either the blanket needs to be substantially warm or don’t bother. The exception to the blanketing unclipped horses is in cases of freezing rain, a waterproof sheet will prevent the horse becoming wet, but so would a nicely bedded shelter! Obviously, clipped horses should always be blanketed outside in cold weather.

Until next time, happy horse keeping!

Shelly Graham is a local rider, trainer, horse breeder and Equine Canada certified coach.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said the 500 deaths from COVID-19 in the province are a tragic milestone. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta hits ‘tragic milestone’ with more COVID-19 deaths

Province up to 500 COVID-19 deaths, adds 1,265 cases

A recent investigation by the RCMP Central Alberta District Crime Reduction Unit led to the arrests of 24 people. (Contributed photo)
24 people arrested following RCMP investigation in central Alberta

Twenty-four people are facing a combined 235 charges following an investigation by… Continue reading

Photo from Town of Sylvan Lake Facebook page
Sylvan Lake communities band together on development plan

Sylvan Lake Intermunicipal Development Plan expected to be approved next spring

Tribe restaurant owner Paul Harris, left, consults with manager Brandon Bouchard about how to proceed under pandemic rules that make it hard for eateries to be profitable. (Contributed photo).
New pandemic rules deemed workable for Red Deer retailers

Stricter COVID-19 reduction measures introduced in lead-up to Christmas

Quentin Lee Strawberry
Man accused in 2019 Red Deer murder will stay behind bars

Quentin Strawberry going to trial next year on second-degree murder charge

Hockey Canada suspends world junior selection camp after positive COVID-19 tests

Hockey Canada suspends world junior selection camp after positive COVID-19 tests

Justice Minister David Lametti responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Liberals to present bill on single-game sports betting

Liberals to present bill on single-game sports betting

Bayern, Man City win to advance to Champions League last-16

Bayern, Man City win to advance to Champions League last-16

FILE - In this March 26, 2006 file photo, former soccer player Diego Maradona smokes a cigar as he watches Argentina's first division soccer match between Boca Juniors and River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Argentine soccer great who was among the best players ever and who led his country to the 1986 World Cup title before later struggling with cocaine use and obesity, died from a heart attack on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, at his home in Buenos Aires. He was 60. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona dies at 60

Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona dies at 60

In this July 1, 2020, photo, Salt Lake Tribune data columnist and Utah Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen poses for a photo. Larsen is a sports writer, but with much of that world sidelined during the pandemic he's been digging into coronavirus data and its sobering implications. So when he found himself with a cache of spare change, partially from his childhood piggy bank, he knew plenty of people could use it. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)
Tweet on spare change generates big money for virus aid

Tweet on spare change generates big money for virus aid

FILE - In this Wednesday, March 18, 2020 file photo, a view of a 'Matterhorn-Express' gondola lift in front of Matterhorn mountain in the Zermatt ski resort, in Zermatt, Switzerland. Restrictions to slow the curve of coronavirus infections have kept ski lifts closed in Italy, France, Germany and Austria, as well as countries further east. But skiers are already heading to mountains in Switzerland, drawing an envious gaze from ski industry and local officials in mountain regions elsewhere on the continent who lost most of last season due to the virus. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP, File)
As season nears, Europe ponders skiing during pandemic

As season nears, Europe ponders skiing during pandemic

FILE - In this Dec. 10, 2015 file photo, actor John Boyega, right, pose with Star Wars characters during the Japan Premiere of their latest film "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in Tokyo. Boyega stars in Steve McQueen’s “Red White and Blue,” the third film in the director’s anthology of West Indian life in London from the ‘60s through the ’80s. The five-film series will debut Dec. 4. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File)
John Boyega isn’t going to ‘take the money and shush’

John Boyega isn’t going to ‘take the money and shush’

The Hockley Motel in Mono, Ont., is shown in this undated handout photo. An Ontario motel that served as a backdrop for the beloved CBC sitcom "Schitt's Creek" is up for sale. The Hockley Motel in Mono, about an hour's drive northwest of Toronto, was listed for $2 million today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Colliers International
Calling all eccentric millionaires: ‘Schitt’s Creek’ motel up for sale for $2 million

Calling all eccentric millionaires: ‘Schitt’s Creek’ motel up for sale for $2 million

Most Read