Horses have a thick skin insulated by fat and thick winter hair. The horse’s integument (its hooves and skin) has an underlying dermis that contains AVAs (arterio-venous anastomoses). These vascular systems allow the body to shunt or divert blood away from its surface area periodically to keep the animal’s central core warm. Then, alternately, the warm blood is circulated back to the external areas to keep them nourished and healthy. You can observe the effectiveness of this system by noting that unmelted snow can rest on a horse’s back without the horse shivering. The horse’s skin may feel cold, but it is warm inside.
Horse blankets or “rugs” are not needed on most horses unless the horse has been clipped, is routinely worked into a sweat, or has a thin skin like some Thoroughbreds. Hair growth is controlled by day length and hormones. Shorter days trigger hormone responses that cause increased hair growth. The thicker, longer hair protects the horse in the harsh winter environment. A wind break is all that is needed for most horses, except in the most extreme conditions.
As wind speed increases, the air temperature goes down. This is especially important to consider when hauling horses. On a cold day, the temperature in a trailer with ventilated sides can be much colder than you think. The following chart from the National Weather Service will give you an idea of the difference air velocity makes on a cold day:
Horses need good ventilation, or fresh air. Horses confined in tightly-closed barns may suffer from lung disease due to lack of adequate ventilation. The average horse breathes out about 2 gallons of water per day. In addition, a horse voids about a gallon of urine a day which contains ammonia. A horse also produces about 35 pounds of feces per day. In a closed barn, especially if not cleaned daily, a combination of these factors can be the cause of lung conditions such as
heaves and pneumonia. Heated barns often compound the problems. Horses, when given a choice, prefer to stay outside without a shelter over head, except in the most severe weather.
Horses are herbivores. They need fiber in their diet. During the winter months, fiber becomes more important because of the heat of digestion generated when digesting fiber. Due to their very small stomach size, horses need at least two feedings a day. If allowed, most horses will spend 70 percent of a twenty-four-hour period grazing. The amount of good quality hay fed to a confined horse should be about one and a half to two percent of its body weight. In extremely cold climates, it’s wise to have fibrous feed, such as grass hay, in front of horses all of the time.
While grains produce energy, they also are laid down as fat if a horse is not working. Corn or maize is a heavier feed containing twice as much energy per volume as oats, and is a preferred winter feed in some areas. Most horses do not need grain while they are inactive in the winter.
Emerging grasses in the spring are high in fructans. Fructans are a rich form of carbohydrates or sugars. Horses that have been confined during the winter months should be slowly introduced to growing pasture in the spring to prevent digestive upsets resulting in colic and laminitis or founder. Horses should be let on the grass for gradually increasing times. Anytime feed stuffs are changed it should be done gradually over a period of five days since this is how long it takes the bacteria flora of the gut to adapt to a new feed.
Water should be available to horses at all times. Even during the winter an average horse needs 7 to 10 gallons of water a day. During the coldest part of the winter, when water buckets freeze, you may be able to provide water only twice a day when you feed your horses. Experiments have shown that horses will drink more water when the water is slightly warmer than the air temperature in winter and slightly cooler than the air temperature in summer. Extremely hot or extremely cold water causes horses to limit their intake and may cause them to colic.
Horses prefer enough area to move around and exercise. Animals that are exercised and trained daily need less space than those that are confined twenty-four/seven. Horses sleep very little; some studies indicate as little as two hours in twenty-four. Many will rarely lie down, unless in a protected area or guarded by a companion. When they lie down, most horses are more concerned about being “caught down” than they are about resting. Of course, a closed stall takes this threat away.
The horse’s limbs contain unique stay apparatuses that allow the large muscle groups to rest while the horse is standing. This feature allows these preyed-upon animals the ability to instantly flee from the standing position. When horses are given a choice of being under an artificial light or being in the dark, the majority prefer the light.
Horses are herd animals. They instinctively prefer companionship. This may be a problem when a horse becomes “love sick” and doesn’t want to be separated from its companion. Generally horses are more content when they can see each other. However, because of herd hierarchy, the ones on the lower end of the pecking order may not get enough feed unless they are kept separate.
7. Foot Care
Horse hooves are 25 to 50 percent water. Water freezes. Frozen hooves may split when nails are driven into them, and pounding upon the feet may be painful. The coriums or sensitive structures under the hoof are often bruised when the horse stands on snow that balls up under the hooves. In the spring, the farrier will notice bruises in the sole horn caused during the winter months. Snowball pads are designed to prevent snowballing. They should be used when shoes, and especially bar shoes, are applied during winter.
Horses that are worked on slippery surfaces should be shod for traction with borium, studs and/or pads to protect both the horse and rider. Removing the shoes and trimming the hooves of horses that will be idle for the winter may be the best solution. However, horses with special problems requiring therapeutic shoes should remain shod and protected with pads.
Taking care of a horse is a big responsibility. We hope that these ideas will help you better fulfill that responsibility during the winter and spring months. For a more complete discussion of horse care and concerns throughout the year, including how to select and evaluate your farrier, see our book – Horse Foot Care, A Horse Owners Guide to Humane Horse Foot Care. Our desire is to raise the standard of farrier practice and make life more pleasant for our equine friends and their care-takers.
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