Although horses are capable of adapting to cold weather, they must be managed and taken care of sensibly during the winter. And it is essential that horse owners understand why certain management practices are necessary when the cold season comes.
Before knowing the top tips to manage horses during the cold, horse owners must understand first the thermoregulation of these animals. There are two ways horses respond to the cold. First is by responding acutely, or immediately.
The horse’s immediate response to the sudden change or drop in the temperature is characterized by a change in their behavior. In order to decrease heat loss or to keep themselves warm, horses huddle together or find shelter from the wind and the cold. They also stop searching for food or foraging and move less to conserve their energy which is why it is unusual to see horses running during the winter season. They also stand with their heads away from the cold wind and they set their tails low and into the wind.
The second type of responding is chronically, or adaptively. Horses exposed to constant cold weather adjust and adapt to the cold. Typically, these animals require a week or up to a month to adapt to the cold season. When horses acclimate to the cold, physiological changes occur such as an increase in the length and density of their coat. To conserve heat and energy, their respiratory rates and body temperature decrease.
A horse's ability to acclimatize depends on the duration of the cold weather and on the horse's energy intake. The energy intake is the most critical in determining how readily the horse develops their tolerance to the cold season. Even if the horse can adapt to winter, horse owners still have a huge responsibility when it comes to managing and caring for these animals in frigid temperatures. Here are a few things to take into consideration:
- Shelter – Horses kept in a shed or shelter can conserve and save body heat or energy up to 20% more than those kept in an exposed or open area. A typical shed should be at least 8 meters deep and should provide enough space for lying down for every horse. Horses that are able to lie down and rest well can reduce surface area heat loss by 25%. Adequate straw for bedding should be provided especially for the young ones.
- Feeding – Enough good quality feed is needed to supply adequate energy intake for the horses. Fat horses are able to convert some of their fat deposits into energy during the winter. Well-fed horses adapt to the cold season without problems, whereas the unfed ones lose weight and eventually lose their ability to adapt and tolerate the cold. Another point to remember regarding feeding is when a horse owner houses several horses in a single shelter. Feeding should be done in a way that reduces the tendency of competing among horses. This is because grouped horses display a pecking order for space and feed. Timid horses have the tendency to become thin even if there is enough feed for every horse because dominant horses in the shed will not allow them to eat.
- Water - Horse owners should also provide, if possible, enough heated water for the animals’ needs. Warm water aids in maintaining the appetite and digestive function of the horses.
- Supplemental Vitamins – Vitamins A, D, and E may be needed. Food supplements will keep the horses healthy and strong. Ask your animal’s vet for appropriate mineral-vitamins mixes.
Many horses are well-equipped to handle most winter weather conditions themselves but horse owners must also know and understand their animal’s cold weather defenses. In this way, they can recognize conditions or situations when horses might need their help.
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