blog featured image

Common Sense Cold Management for Horses

Cold weather can be very hard on our horses, and in Renner we recently went through an early extended cold snap.  Actual temperatures were hovering around 0 and down to -15, with windchills of -20s to -30s.  The snap lasted for several days, which increased the problems.  At the same time, the cold snap brings out lots of opinions and debates as to what is proper cold management with horses, with people citing conflicting studies, referring to the "wild horses" or going to the opposite extreme, and it seems everyone has an opinion and their own way is the right way.

Obviously, in the upper midwest, we've developed our own methods for dealing with the cold.  And what it boils down to is common sense and the individual horse's needs.  There is no "one size fits all" answer to the blanketing or stalling question, and we encourage people to look at their horses as individuals and treat them accordingly.  Ironically, at my day job I share a room with three other people.  We regularly have problems with temperature regulation.  Two of us will come to work in multiple layers and still be cold and want to turn up the heat.  The other two are typically wearing less layers and are hot - one will even break into a sweat.  We do our best to balance the group needs by our clothing, but occasionally we just have to turn the heat up or down to make it work.  We don't expect the four of us to deal with the temperature exactly the same, and make adjustments, so why do people expect every horse to respond exactly the same?

So, facing a severe cold snap, here's how we prepared and the decisions we made in Renner:

Hay and Digestion

First and foremost - hay.  Horses make a lot of their body heat through digestion of hay, so the first thing to do is to make sure they are getting plenty of feed.  The majority of the time the Renner horses are kept off the round bale for 10-12 hours a day, and turned out in the big pasture for turnout.  We also use a Cinch Chix net (contact us for how you can help our rescue by getting one) to reduce waste and help them eat at a steadier pace.  With this method, we've found that our horses average about 18-22 pounds of hay per day, and the six horses in Renner will go through an 1100 pound round bale in about 9-10 days.  With an extended bitter cold snap coming, we obviously want to increase that to help them stay warm.  The net comes off, and the horses stay on the bale around the clock.  With this extended snap, we also have some donated bales of first-year alfalfa/oat hay that is stemmy and not something we would feed as a regular food source, but it works well for keeping them eating and digesting.  We added a round bale of that in the pen, and as the weather started to warm up put another one out in the turnout pasture so they could have turnout but still have something to nibble on.  The horses average approximately 30-40 pounds of hay per day when eating like this, and the six at Renner will go through an 1100 pound round bale in about 6 days during the bitter cold.

GSH horses are given an oats and senior feed mix as needed, and everyone is given a little extra during this time.  On bitterly cold days we will soak beet pulp and/or alfalfa pellets with warm water, or make a bran mash, to provide some extra internal heat if needed.

Blankets

To blanket or not to blanket seems to be one of the most debatable topics when it comes to winter horse care.  Some insist that blanketing is evil and unnecessary, and cite studies that show that a horses' coat is amazing (it is!) and talk about wild horses not needing them, etc.  What's forgotten is that wild horses lose a lot of weight over the winter, and many will die of starvation and hypothermia.  Over the years, and with our "individual horse's needs" approach, we've taken the position that we blanket if needed.  We attempt to maintain a heavy weight winter blanket and a light weight rain sheet for every horse in our care.  We watch the horses closely and blanket if they are showing obvious signs of distress or cold.  Additionally, when the windchills start hitting -20 or lower, everyone is blanketed to provide the extra windbreak and warmth.  There is only so much hay they can eat to keep them warm, and hay is an expensive way to keep them warm!

Here are some of the ways we determine if a horse needs a blanket or not:

  1. Check core body temperature.  We do this by feeling their skin behind their elbows.  If a horse is obviously colder than the rest to touch, she likely would benefit from a blanket.
  2. Shivering.  Shivering is an obvious sign that a horse is cold.  Shivering is the body's way of quickly generating heat.  If a horse is slightly shivering we will get her fed right away.  If they are violently shivering we are usually more concerned, and will bring the horse in and dry them off and blanket as much as possible.  While shivering is an effective way to build heat, it's also a sign that your horse is in distress.  It is our opinion that we pay way too much for the hay for them to shiver it off, when a blanket and a little extra feed can help.
  3. Observation of their behavior and attitude.  We've noticed a marked increase in spookiness and what we call "cold stupid" on certain horses.  It's hard to describe, but you notice that they are acting excessively high strung and out of the ordinary.  For example, they may become difficult to catch, or hard to lead, or in general just act like they've completely lost their brain.  We generalize it but have definitely seen this behavior in more high strung horses but all breeds are prone to it.  Often, getting some food into them and a blanket will quickly calm them down and their brains come back.  A very cold horse that has this behavior can be very difficult to handle.  Alternatively, a horse that is acting sluggish or looks depressed can be just as cold.  Again, there is no one right answer for every horse - you need to know your horse and know what's normal, and react when they are acting out of the ordinary.
  4. Observation of snow/water build up.  For a healthy, warm horse, snow will sit on their backs and not melt.  If you notice melting, or ice build up, or it's a rainy and cold day, a blanket can be a huge help.  As we mentioned - the horses' coat can do wonderful things and does a great job of trapping air and insulating a healthy horse.  However, if they get cold and wet, the hair can get matted down and their core body will get cold faster.  We are more prone to throw a lightweight rain sheet on in the fall or spring, when the temperature is in the 30s to 40s and raining, than we are on a dry winter day with 0-10 degree weather, as the horses are much more likely to be warm if they are dry.
  5. Amount of shelter and wind.  The Sanctuary horses are in an area that doesn't get a lot of wind, therefore they are blanketed less than the Renner horses who are in a more open pasture area.  We're more apt to put blankets on when the wind is up (and windchills down) than we are during cold, still days.  Even with shelter provided to the horses, the hay is out in the open so providing extra protection from the wind is helpful.
  6. Body weight and condition of the horse.  Skinny horses need extra help, period.  If the horse has a body condition score of less than 4, or is showing ribs, they get a blanket much more often than the rest of them.
  7. Amount of physical work.  Most of the GSH horses are not in work over the winter.  However, to be thorough, we thought we'd mention this.  If a horse is in work (such as a couple of our personal/show horses), we are likely to blanket all winter long.  This does require a lot of maintenance and varying the weight of the blankets to keep their temperature regulated, however the trade off is that they do not sweat as much during work and do not take as long to dry out afterwards, which reduces the chances of getting sick from being cold.

We strongly encourage people to make their own decisions based on their own horses' needs when it comes to blanketing.  Some horses do really well and rarely, if ever, need a blanket ... some horses really thrive with one.  We do not blanket all winter, and have found that blanketing during the bitter cold does NOT affect the horses' ability to keep himself warm the rest of the year.  You have to start blanketing pretty early in the fall to discourage proper hair growth.  It's also important to check under the blanket every day and make sure a horse is not too HOT as well. 

Water

This goes without saying, but water is an absolute must.  We invest in strong tank heaters and check the water twice a day to make sure it has not frozen over.  We break any ice and will remove large chunks if needed.  Tank heaters can burn out if exposed to the air too long, so keeping the tanks full is more important than ever. 

Winter management can take a lot of work, but it's worth it when the horses are content and maintain their weight over winter.