Understanding Winter Comfort: A Guide to Keeping Your Horses Warm and Cozy

Explore essential tips for keeping pets and horses warm in winter. Discover breed-specific needs, effective strategies for insulation, and health considerations to ensure your furry friends stay cozy and safe during the colder months.

As it gets colder outside and we enjoy snuggling up to a warm cup of cocoa inside we may start wondering the best way to keep our companions enjoying the cold weather. How much help our horses will need depends a lot on their breed and natural cold weather equipment.

How do Horses stay warm?

Depending on your horses's breed they may be better suited for winter weather naturally, but there are some anatomical features that help them keep themselves warm.

  • Longer noses with large sinuses- Non-brachiocephalic breeds (animals without short noses) will breath their long, nasal passages prior to entering the lungs. Their nasal passages have a large amount of blood flow warming the air up a great degree prior to it entering the lungs preventing them from losing body heat while breathing.
  • Thick hair coat- Some horses have thicker coats than others, but most breeds will be able to grow a nice thick coat with two layers. The outer layer has longer, larger hairs that help to act like a wind/water barrier. The inner layer has shorter, and individually smaller hairs allowing warm hair to be trapped next to the horse’s body preventing heat loss to the environment
  • Long legs- A horses long legs allow them to keep their main body out of the snow/cold mud that would leach heat. Their hooves act like a barrier to any heat leaching out of their feet. With their long legs themselves horses are also able to greatly constrict the blood flow without detrimental effects minimizing the amount of blood traveling through the less insulated parts of their body keeping as much heat as possible.
  • Large GI tract with big hindgut- The horse’s GI tract is designed for hindgut fermentation. This means that most of the forage a horse eats will travel to a large loop and ferment with bacteria back there producing a large amount of heat as the starches/fiber is broken down by the bacteria. In essence, a horse GI tract acts like a little internal furnace producing large amounts of heat from the inside to keep them warm.

When does a horse need a blanket?

The horse blanket industry is a very large industry giving all the options for weight, size, color, and shape to choose from for your horse. When to blanket or not blanket depends on your individual horse’s coat quality and ability to stay warm. Some things to keep in mind:

  • Body clipped horses- Many horses are body clipped in the winter time to keep them from becoming too hot exercising in the winter months. These horses need to be blanketed to stay warm just was we need a coat to stay warm. Often the temperatures listed on the side of the blanket is a good measure for which one to grab.
  • Thin/losing weight- If your horse heads into the winter months a little underweight or you notice that your horse is dropping weight during the winter then a blanket would be beneficial. Without a good layer of body fat under the skin it can be hard for horses to maintain their own insulation. As a result of less insulation, horses will increase their metabolism to burn more energy and maintain their body temperature. Depending on how many extra calories your horse needs to burn, they may start losing weight at a rapid rate. Blankets can help maintain their temperature using less calories.
  • Shivering- If you ever see a horse start shivering then their natural defenses to keep the chill out have not worked in this situation. If they are wet a dry place out of the wind with a cooler designed to wick moisture off their body would be ideal to help them dry out. If they are dry and shivering then a nice big blanket to make up for a lack of insulation would be appreciated.
  • Horse not given opportunity to grow winter coat- If you acquire a horse in the middle of winter from a barn much warmer than yours or one that blanketed everyone to keep a thin haircoat on the horses the animal will not have an adequate coat to stay warm without help. Horses that start the fall/winter out wearing blankets will not grow enough insulation to stay warm without a blanket.

Other than blankets, how can I help my horse stay warm/healthy?

  • Warm water- In cold weather it is very important to make sure a clean, fresh water source is always available. Cold air is much drier than warm air, pulling fluid out of the lungs as the animal breaths. Dehydration is more of a concern the colder it gets. Warm water not only helps prevent leaching heat internally when swallowed, but it is also more easily absorbed allowing your animal to hydrate faster than with cold water. Warm water also does not freeze ensuring that it is always available.
  • Large amount Roughage- Providing horses with large amounts of fibrous hay will give them more food for their hindgut to digest. Their hindgut is a larger part of their intestine in which bacteria ferment their primarily plant-based diet so that it can be absorbed. This fermentation process produces a large amount of heat acting like an internal furnace while the horse eats.
  • Shelter- Giving horses a place to get out of the wind and rain is essential for them to be able to use their coats to their full potential. Windy storms can break their natural barriers and if the coat next to the skin gets wet horses will have a very difficult time maintaining their normal internal body temperature.
  • Bedding- Horses can doze standing up but to fully rest they need to laydown and go to sleep. A deeper, insulating bedding can allow horses to lay down without losing heat to the ground and getting their core wet. This works best when placed in a shelter with shavings and/or straw being the most common choices used.

Health Concerns During Winter:

Every season brings its own challenges and with those challenges different medical conditions are often seen. Most common issues that we encounter in the winter include:

  • Wounds- Blanket buckles get loose and horses get caught/tangled in lines leading to injuries. The topography of the ground can also change with large amounts of snowfall or mud which can hide different hazards horses can run into or trip on.
  • Colic- Dehydration is a common problem in the winter which often leads to constipation and/or impaction colic.
  • Arthritis/lameness- As it gets colder and horses move around less, arthritic changes can cause more pain on a regular basis. Many older horses can also have issues with rising due to the cold/wet weather leading to an inability to rise.

When to Call the Veterinarian:

Anytime a drastic change in behavior occurs in your animal is a good time to call for an exam. Major issues to watch for in the winter would be a lack of appetite or inability to rise/move around comfortably. Any area of sudden sensitivity, swelling, or bleeding would also be of concern.

Our Commitment to You

At Carrollton Equine, we believe in providing the best possible care for your horse no matter the time of year. If you have any further questions or concerns regarding your animal this winter season please do not hesitate to call.

Resources for Pet Owners

For additional discussions on winter care for horses I encourage you to check out:

  • https://aaep.org/horsehealth/winter-water-consumption
  • https://practicalhorsemanmag.com/practical-horseman-extra/cold-weather-horse-care-tips-jim-woffords-winter-reading-list/

In Conclusion

As the days are short and the temperature drops, the weather outside can be unpredictable at best. Snuggle up in a blanket knowing that your Equine friends are safe and happy in the barn with all the tools they need to stay warm.

About The Author

Nicole Kelleher

DVM, CVA, VSMT  |  Owner & Equine Veterinarian

Nicole graduated from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2014. Since then she has continued to further her education by becoming a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist graduating from the Chi Institute in 2017. She then attended the Healing Oasis school to graduate with her degree in Veterinary Spinal Manipulative Therapy (VSMT) in 2021. Dr. Kelleher regularly sees clients utilizing Shenanigans Stables to perform lameness evaluations and treat patients with both acupuncture and VSMT allowing for an integrative approach to the equine athlete.

Get In Touch With Us Today