January 27, 2015
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Cold Weather Care for the Horse

Cold Weather Action Plan

Horses are well-engineered for cold weather conditions. Having evolved on windswept mountain steppes millennia ago, they are good at maintaining their core body temperatures even when the exterior thermometer plunges well below freezing. Their coats provide excellent water repellency, and their guttural pouches, at the back of the throat, are thought to help warm cold air before it makes its way down to the delicate tissues of the lungs. All in all, horses cope much better with winter than their human partners.

That’s not to say, however, that winter is a picnic for a racehorse. Animals being asked to exert themselves extensively during brutally cold weather can suffer muscle, respiratory, and immune system challenges which can have a serious impact on their racing performance.

Here are a few steps you can take to protect your horses when racing in cold weather:

  • Clip horses for winter racing. This allows for quicker drying after sweating or bathing, and a horse which dries faster is less susceptible to chilling. But clipped horses must be provided with a well-fitting blanket when not exercising, and sheltered from extremes of wind, cold, and weather.
  • Allow fresh air to flow through the trailer. We may be inclined to close all the vents and load on the blankets when trailering horses in winter, but that can lead to overheating and respiratory problems. Protect your horses from direct drafts, but make sure vents are open.
  • Use less water when bathing your horses in cold weather to facilitate quicker drying. Adding a little rubbing alcohol to the bath water will speed evaporation.
  • Keep horses away from direct drafts while cooling out. A horse that gets chilled after exercise is at risk for respiratory problems and muscle soreness. The coat should be dry when the horse is fully cooled.
  • Warm horses up adequately. Cold muscles in cold temperatures are more susceptible to injury.
  • Don’t tie tongues in such a manner that they protrude from the mouth. Tongues are very susceptible to freezing when temperatures are bitter.
  • Provide the animal with fuel by increasing the hay ration. Horses generate body heat by digesting plant fibres in the ‘fermentation vat’ of the cecum. A horse which drops weight in the winter may be expending too much energy trying to keep warm. Consider adding a digestible fibre product such as soaked beet pulp to the feed, rather than more grain.
  • Encourage water intake by offering horses lukewarm water several times a day. Reluctance to drink ice-cold water can leave some horses dehydrated in winter, and that can increase the risk of impaction colic.
  • In extreme conditions, consider protecting the ear-tips (the most likely spot for frostbite to strike) with jumper-style ear-nets. Horses rarely get frostbite, but horses at home, especially newborn foals, very old horses, and those which are very thin, severely dehydrated, or have heart problems may be vulnerable.

pdf download Cold Weather Poster