This article was an honorable mention in the 2018 GMO Newsletter Award in general interest narrative for GMOs with fewer than 75 members. It first appeared in the February 2018 Three Rivers Equestrian Association Newsletter, Three Rivers Equestrian Association.
By Renee Shiska
So, you woke up and it’s cold. Like really cold. You peek out the window and see your beloved horses out in their pasture…they’ve been out there all night. You are cold in the heated house. How can they even survive outside in these temps? When you go down to feed, the horses gallop up to the fence, rearing and playing with each other like everything is just wonderful. You are freezing and your fingers and toes are blue.
How can the horses survive outside in this bitter cold?
First, horses are way tougher than we humans are. They are built to withstand temperatures far colder than we can. Studies have shown that horses can still be comfortable at -40 as long as their basic needs are met. So, what are those needs for the bitter cold?
One of nature’s best insulating tricks is a coat of longer, coarser hairs over a fluffier under layer. Those longer hairs stand up when the horse starts to feel cold (think goosebumps on us). This creates a pouch-like area of warm air trapped in the under layers of hair right against the skin. This is one very important way a horse can keep his body temperature up. This is where blankets can actually be harmful. If the blanket is not heavy enough, it will interfere with this insulating trick and not allow the hairs to rise and trap that warmer air. So, if you are going to blanket, make sure that the blanket is heavy enough to replace what warmth you are taking away.
Another great thing about a horse’s system is his cecum located in the hindgut. The cecum is a place of mass fermentation and digestion of fiber. Why does this matter? That digestion of fiber makes the cecum the horse’s furnace of sorts, keeping his body toasty warm. This is why it is stressed to keep hay in front of your horse free choice during the cold weather. It is literally fueling the fire in his cecum and keeping his body temperature up. You should also feed a grain that is higher in fiber in the winter to help keep this process up and running well.
Of course, with higher amounts of hay and fiber comes the extra need for water. Horses don’t like to drink as much in the cold winter, but with the added amount of dry hay and fiber, it is extra important. So, a well heated tub of water is a mandatory item in your pasture. Without water and the consumption of all that hay, your horse will be nearly guaranteed an impaction colic.
Lastly, your horse needs a windbreak of some sort. If the wind chill gets too bad, that warm air trapped against his skin will literally be blown away, leaving him cold. A truly cold horse will shiver, and that shivering is consuming calories that he needs to stay healthy. So, some place out of the wind for the worst of the cold temps and wind chills is absolutely needed.