By Monique Warren
Winter can be challenging for equines and their guardians. Keeping warm is often a valid concern - yet there are differences in how horses and people cope with lower temperatures.
Read on to learn common misconceptions about the cold and how to stoke internal body heat while providing a healthier, natural lifestyle for your herd.
Misconception # 1: Feeding grain & high calorie/starch feeds will keep my horse warm.
Truth: Forage (hay or pasture) provides large amounts of insoluble fiber which is primarily digested in the hindgut. Internal body heat is produced by bacterial fermentation. High fiber feeds produce long lasting internal body heat to maintain core body temperature. The hindgut is your horse’s furnace! Keeping it stoked with fuel (forage) helps to keep them warm internally.
In contrast, grain and feeds - that are lower in fiber and higher in carbohydrates than forage - are primarily digested in the small intestine. Enzymes are by and large responsible for digestion that occurs there. The small intestine is the main site of soluble carbohydrates, protein and fat digestion as well as vitamin and mineral absorption.
Your horse may require a concentrated source of calories to maintain or gain weight in colder months but there is minimal internal body heat resulting from digestion (enzymatic) in the small intestine. The increase in body condition score as a result of increased caloric intake eventually provides them with more insulation. Fat can be three times more insulating than other tissues.
Personally, I enjoy offering a big pile of dry shavings outside year around (I live in Southern California). During the winter it provides a layer of insulation from the cold wet ground and a soft place to lay down in summertime when the ground is dry and hard.
Misconception #2: A hot bran mash will keep my horse warm.
Truth: A warm meal is a short term solution to increase core body temperature. A constant flow of forage provides long term internal body heat. If you don’t feed bran on a daily basis, the introduction of any new feedstuff should be introduced gradually.
Misconception #3: My horse can’t stay warm outside in the cold.
Truth: The horse possesses a highly effective thermoregulation system. Piloerection gives the horse’s hair coat the ability to stand up, lay down and change direction via hair erector muscles trapping warm air and creating an insulating layer. Blanketing prevents this ability and if applied long term can cause hair erector muscles to atrophy. Any muscle can atrophy without exercising for a period of time. Of course, blanketing may be required for underweight, older or compromised individuals. If required, provide a variety of thicknesses appropriate for the current weather. Be mindful of the fact that they can’t take it off if they get hot or change into a warmer blanket if they get cold and that the entire body heats up or cools down.
Allow your herd to live and eat together full time. Doing so promotes movement and provides the psychological and physical comforts of a herd animal. Hierarchy will always exist, but the majority of time aggressive behavior is associated with food aggression. If free choice forage is available, the intensity of dominant combative behavior typically subsides.
Avoid using artificial lighting, which discourages the growth of a full winter coat. A horse’s hair coat changes twice a year. Sensors in the horse’s skin react to the duration of light and dark hours. The horse will start to grow their winter coat after the summer solstice as days shorten and will start to grow their summer coat after the winter solstice as days get longer.
Stalls can be colder than being outside. The coldest time of day is just before the sun rises and when it does, a stalled horse remains standing - in the shade! Being outside gives them the ability to move and bask in the sun to warm up.
Offer appropriate shelter 24/7 that they can enter and exit at will and free choice forage in multiple locations. A three sided shed or stall will ensure protection from the wind and gives them the ability to stay dry. With these options available, they have a choice of where they are most comfortable. It alleviates the task of moving horses from one enclosure to another depending on weather conditions.
Avoid bathing and daily grooming (unless riding), which removes the natural oils in their coat that help to protect their skin from getting wet. A healthy diet, parasite control and sufficient healthy omegas produce glowing hair coats that don't look dull while retaining the natural oils on the skin and hair that repel dust and water. Win - win, no need to bathe!
Misconception # 4: Winter is the most effective tool for weight loss; restrict forage.
Truth: Addressing the core diet while providing appropriate slow fed free choice forage, routine exercise and freedom of movement is the healthiest solution for overweight individuals despite the time of year. Restricting forage for periods of time may rob your horse of the ability to stay warm and comfortable. Being hungry and cold is miserable!
Gastric ulcers should be a concern whenever forage is restricted for periods of time. The stress associated with the lack of forage, the discomfort of acid build up in the stomach and being cold promotes ulcers and a less than optimum immune system.
Suffice it to say...
By respecting and providing a natural environment, free choice forage (whether slow fed or not) in multiple locations, a warm winter hair coat, concentrated source of calories if needed, appropriate protection from the elements and freedom of movement - you can help your herd cope best with colder temperatures. And you get peace of mind knowing your herd is happy and healthy - while drinking hot tea by the fireplace.
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Monique Warren invented the Hay Pillow® slow feeder and is the owner of Hay Pillow Inc.