One of the first things on everyone's mind when it comes to winter is whether or not their horse is cold. Click here for for our chart and guidelines for blanketing, but much of this topic is common sense. Consider that:
- Very young and very old horses have more trouble regulating their temperatures.
- Horses with little body fat and/or a thin coat have less insulation.
- A horse that is shivering is cold.
OUTSIDE HORSES. Many horses that spend a good bit of their time outside will grow a nice, thick winter coat that serves them well without blanketing. An exception is when they get soaked through to the skin.
If the horse is going to be outside most of the time, you'll need to have a shelter that protects him from the prevailing winds and from precipitation. Horses with access to a shelter will lose 20 to 30% less body heat than those without protection. You can also keep a blow dryer and several heavy towels stocked for times when they don't come in out of the rain and cold until it's too late.
If this is a group situation, pay close attention to the herd dynamics to make sure all horses have access to the shelter. A horse low in the pecking order is both most likely to be chased out and most likely to need the shelter. Equip your shed with hay racks even if you have a separate hay bunker, for times when the weather and/or ground conditions are particularly severe.
It's important that the shed have good drainage and be accessible for mucking. Sheds should be bedded to encourage horses to lie down. A horse that is lying down loses less body heat. Click here for additional information on respiratory problems, cold hardiness, feeding and winter laminitis.
STABLED HORSES. While you wouldn't call most barns warm in the winter, compared to living outside, horses in barns are considerably less challenged. The temperatures are at least more consistent and adapting is much easier. And there's usually no wind-chill factor inside the barn.
However, their coats usually aren't as full as a horse living outside, and they will be less tolerant of severe weather so don't be surprised if you need to blanket for turnout or possibly even one while they're stabled, if the temperature dips down far enough. Allow enough air circulation to avoid extreme differences between in-barn and outside temperatures so that horses can adapt, but remember it's harder to keep warm if you're standing still. Blanket as needed.
FEEDING. There are two times when you need to increase the food/calorie intake of horses: 1) When there is a sudden cold snap, and 2) When temperatures are consistently below 5° F.
A variety of formulas are used to determine when the horse needs more feed and how much to give them. However, this can be greatly simplified by feeding hay free choice. The horse will regulate intake according to needs. Hay isn't a very concentrated calorie source but is the preferred food for winter because the bacterial fermentation of the hay in the horse's colon generates heat.