As outside temperatures begin to drop, new horse owners or other interested parties may begin to worry about how our four-legged friends will fair outside in the dead of winter. Being a horse lover myself, I can’t help but shiver when I see the beautiful animals out in the cold, but is my sympathy being wasted on animals that are perfectly equipped for the cold outdoors?
Like all mammals, horses do get cold. However, they can tolerate weather as hard as, or below, 0° F / -17° C and perhaps even colder with proper shelter. Although, horses are most comfortable at temperatures between 18° F / -7° C and 59° F / 15° C depending on their coat.
But there’s more to know about horses and winter than the temperatures they can withstand. To keep your horses healthy during the colder months, you need to know how to recognize if they’re out, extra measures necessary for their comfort, and what their breed is naturally equipped for.
Can Horses Be Outside in the Winter?
Horses are acclimated to colder temperatures and prefer to spend their time outdoors. Many do best in the colder temperatures of 18° F / -7° C and 59° F / 15° C, so being outside isn’t a problem.
Many horse owners confine their horses during the winter, but this confinement and the subsequent limited exercise may lower leg swelling. Horses are active animals, and they need to get the necessary exercise to stay healthy.
So no, there is no need to keep your horses inside all winter. However, there is a necessity for shelter ready for when your horse needs it – this includes a stocked barn with all the necessary equipment to keep your horse comfortable during the winter.
However, during winter, horses become more at risk of colic – abdominal pain, which occurs when feed that does not travel through the horse’s gut naturally and efficiently accumulates and forms a blockage. Although, as long as you take the necessary extra measures to care for and provide for your horse during the winter, they should remain healthy.
Do Horses get Cold?
Since horses are mammals, they are bound to get cold in harsh winter weather. This being said, horses can withstand colder temperatures, so they don’t need to be cooped up inside all winter long. Many horse breeds even grow winter coats to deal with the weather changes.
Can Horses Be Out in Snow?
As long as a horse is metabolically healthy, receives enough calories, develops a good winter coat, and has access to the appropriate shelter, they should do fine in the harsher conditions that winter has to offer.
Despite their natural resistance to the cold, it is important that you supply all the additional resources they need to ride out the winter and check up on them regularly.
Horse Breeds & Ideal Weather
While most horses can make it through the winter with the help of shelter, rugs, additional food, water, and other human-made insulation, there are still some breeds developed for winter climates. These breeds don’t just survive in cold weather; they thrive in it.
Top 5 Horse Breeds which Thrive in Winter:
- Yakut – bred in the Yakutia region, they are a fairly small breed which is the most equipped to withstand harsh winter environments.
- Icelandic – bred by Norse settlers, they grew to be one of the hardiest horse breeds, able to handle intense snowstorms and high winds.
- Bashkir – this is a unique horse which can handle both extreme cold and extreme heat, allowing them to survive pretty much anywhere.
- Kabarda – bred in Russia, these horses have the ability to adapt to just about every environment.
- Finn – being fully developed in Finland, Finn’s are an incredibly versatile cold blood breed and are revered as a hardy winter horse.
How to Tell if your Horse is too Hot or Cold
Living creatures all have tell-tail signs which indicate how they are reacting to their current conditions. Learning these signs is vital if you want to ensure that your horse is comfortable.
This especially comes in useful if you are rugging your horse since you may need to tell if they are becoming too warm and you need to remove the rug, or if they are cold and need a rug.
Signs your horse is too hot:
- Wet Behind the Ears – when a horse has sweat behind their ears or along their neck, it means they are too warm.
- Heavy Breathing – if a horse is breathing heavily and its not from exertion, then they are overheating.
- Sweating – just like in humans horses sweating is an indication that they are feeling too hot.
- Lethargy – looking for signs of lethargy, listlessness and a lowered head can indicate if a horse is too warm.
Signs of your horse being too cold are:
- Shivering – horses shiver when they are cold, just like we do.
- Tucked Tail – a horse tucking its tail could be an indication that it is trying to warm up.
- Direct Touch – placing your hand on your horse is a good way to feel how cold they are. feeling behind their ears or around their kidneys (either side of their back behind where a saddle would be) are good spots to check.
Caring for Your Horse in the Winter
Considering the harsher temperatures and weather horses will face in the winter, they will need extra care. So, be sure to prepare and stock up with the necessary resources.
It is essential that your horse has access to adequate shelter when they need it. Although they still prefer to spend most of their time outside in winter, if the weather takes a turn for the worse or your horse needs a little break, they will need to be able to have somewhere sheltered and warmer to turn to.
Many horses don’t need to be rugged, but waterproof and breathable rugs can help protect them against strong winds and rain. While cold weather doesn’t generally cause discomfort in horses, wind and moisture can be an irritant, and rugs can help protect them from these elements.
However, you need to check up on your horses regularly if they are blanketed. Chances of rain rot – bacterial skin disease – can occur if a horse with thick hair is repeatedly sweating under a rug. Changes in the horse’s body – like rapid weight loss or strange lumps and bumps – can also be missed if the rug isn’t taken off frequently to check.
Horses need additional calories during the winter seeing as they burn significantly more calories to keep warm. High-quality hay should be a large part of your horse’s winter diet. They should have fresh, dry hay available to them at all times to ensure they get enough sustenance.
Horses still need clean water during the winter months. Even though some snow may be lying around, snow and ice will not be enough to hydrate your horses. Ideally, they should have a trough of warm water that is about 44° F / 7° C and 64° F / 18° C. Providing water to your horses is a great way to prevent common winter colic.
A horse’s hooves grow slower in the winter, but they should still be trimmed every 6 – 12 weeks. Their hooves are also prone to ‘ice’ or ‘snowballs’ during winter. These balls of packed ice make it difficult for them to walk, increase their risk of falling, and stress their tendons and joints. Because of this, you should pick their hooves daily.
Exercise for your Horse in Winter
Horses shouldn’t stop getting their exercise in the winter months. Whether you choose to promote their physical activity by taking them out for rides, or any other methods, you need to take extra precautions.
You should be weather-ready when taking your horse out on a ride during the winter. Considering the slippery, icy condition, you should pack brace socks or hock wraps if you encounter tough terrain. Furthermore, take care when riding in deep or heavy snow to prevent tendon injuries. These kinds of conditions are hard work for a horse – especially an unfit one. Nevertheless, you should avoid icy areas for both your and your horse’s safety.
Horses are happy – and safe – to stay outside during the winter. Given that they are provided with the extra care they require during the colder months, they will be able to ride out the weather without much trouble.
While there are some ever-present risks, they can easily be avoided by providing your horse with proper food and water. Additionally, although cold weather generally doesn’t bother horses, wind and rain do so be sure to take extra measures to protect them from these elements.