As horse owners we all know that the ideal, natural environment for a horse consists of the following:
- Continuous access to food and water
- Opportunity to graze
- Living in a herd environment
- Shelter from inclement weather
In many cases, we offer these essential things but in an unnatural way, particularly during the winter months (stables, small irregular feeds, solitary turn out). However, if you’re prepared to keep your horse/s unclipped there are simple and effective ways to manage them so that they can thermo-regulate the way nature intended. You’ll find that if allowed to do so, their skin and coat health will improve and their immune system will remain robust.
One of the most effective ways for the horse to generate heat is from eating and metabolizing. Consuming hay results in fermentation of fibre in the hindgut, which in turn produces heat as a by-product. This is the easiest and most effective way for a horse to stay warm. By providing access to free-choice forage, you can ensure your horse will stay warm (provided it isn’t stuck out in windy, wet weather). In addition, access to free-choice forage helps to ensure that your horse has the additional energy it needs in cooler weather to maintain condition.
Grazing is a central factor in equine thermoregulation. As horses move, their muscles produce heat, which warm the body throughout. The opportunity to graze and move about continuously is important for keeping the body warm in the Winter. Given that it is much easier for horses to warm up than to cool down, most horses will utilize this method of heat production readily if the need arises.
Living in a herd environment is ideal for horses but many of our horses today either live in a stable on their own or are turned out into individual paddocks. Being in a herd, other than providing important social stimuli and allowing for normal social behaviour in horses, also provides an opportunity for warmth. In cold weather, a herd of horses will often lie or stand together to prevent heat loss and to increase warmth from combined body heat. The chance to share heat can really support thermo-regulation for turned out horses, particularly if there is a sudden or drastic drop in temperature.
Shelter from inclement weather is important year round, and in many cases it’s important that horses are able to shelter from the heat as much as from the cold. By providing a three-sided shelter, or even a protective tree line, horses will be able to stay out of the wet and wind should they arise. Being able to shelter will ensure that horses don’t become ‘soaked to the bone’ and catch a chill - it’s important that they’re able to stay out of those conditions. One other solution is to rug with a waterproof when conditions deteriorate to wet and windy. The downside of course is that someone needs to be around when the weather shifts!
Of course the coat and skin are also an important part of the thermoregulation puzzle. As the winter comes in, if the coat is allowed to grow long and thick, it will be able to protect the horse from particularly cold weather. The oils and ‘dirt’ on the coat will further help to insulate the skin. The skin has an insulating factor as well, but should it become wet, the horse will quickly feel the cold and so the opportunity to take shelter in the wet is particularly important. Without a winter coat, your horse will certainly need to be rugged. However, the process of rugging can be avoided completely if the coat is left to grow. An added bonus of this is that the summer coat comes in beautifully if this natural process is allowed to occur.
Fat is 3 X more insulating than other body tissues, making it an excellent component of warmth for horses. Because fat is such an excellent insulator, it is recommended to allow your horse to gain some weight prior to winter to give it that natural boost for keeping warm. Allowing your horse to gain some weight prior to winter is an especially good way to ensure that they’ll be able to stay warm if doing their own thermo-regulating.
It doesn’t take much to keep horses comfortable and warm enough in the winter and in many cases we over do it. If you can spare your horse being clipped, then a simple routine should suffice, which will involve little to no rugging and very little hassle.
Just to recap, here are the best ways to allow a horse to keep itself warm:
- Turn them out to roam and move about freely
- Ensure they have continuous access to roughage
- Provide access to shelter so they can come out of wind and rain
- Turn them out in a herd so that shared body heat can boost their warmth when the chill really sets in
- Allow their coat to grow so that the natural process of thermo-regulation can kick in effectively
For those horses who either don't cope well in the winter or are turned out in the way desribed above, a seasonal supplement such as our Winter Warming Blend can help to protect and suppport their health through the colder months, while further supporting effective and high functioning thermoregulation.