Horses are designed by nature to live outside shelters. Except for the art of domestication and sport purposes, horses live all their lives in the open, and as such, nature designed them to be better equipped at withstanding harsh weather conditions. They possess greater abilities to withstand extreme cold weather compared to humans.
Of course, horses, like all mammals are warm-blooded animals. This translates to the fact that their bodies are naturally equipped to provide itself with insulation which helps horses stay warm in the winter. Although this may not be sufficient at all times, horses have very unique ways of adapting to severe weather – I’m talking about temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, way below the human comfort zone.
How do these abilities come by? Let’s find out!
How Horses Stay Warm In The Winter
Nature has equipped horses with everything they need to survive the harshest cold. While it is good for owners to actively try to keep their horses warm, these magnificent creatures can do a decent job by themselves. Here’s how-
With the right amount of nutrients, horses can naturally prepare for cold weather. They begin by building up a layer of fat just beneath their skin before the winter season approaches. Some horses can achieve this easily, while others would require an extra supply of nutrients to build up their body fat.
This extra fat serves as insulation, as well as calories reserve during winter. The fat layers hold in body heat during winter and by spring, it is gone. It is therefore important to monitor a horse’s body condition during winter to know if the horse is gaining or losing weight or probably just holding onto it.
It is important to know that horses that are fit and athletic but have been working all through the working season will need a little extra time to build upon the required body fat needed to keep their body functional during winter. It is advisable to feed them well enough in order to build up their fat levels.
Older horses need more fats too to provide their body with enough calories to keep functioning and maintain its condition.
The Digestive System
The digestive system of horses is fashioned to ferment roughages all day. When a horse is allowed to graze for most of the day, their digestive tract becomes full of forage, which when fermented by the hindgut, produces heat steadily which in turn acts as insulation for the animal. Horses should have fibrous food in front of them all day during cold weather.
The Respiratory System
Horses have a respiratory system specially designed to warm up the air they breathe in. Now, this may seem out of the ordinary, and indeed it is. The respiratory system has its own moderator so that when the horse breathes in, the air passes through the upper airway and through the guttural pouches (air-filled cavities at the base of the horse’s skull). This then warms it up so that by the time it gets to the lungs, it is already warm air. This action minimises the chance of cold stress on the lungs.
The Circulatory System
The horse has a very large and powerful circulatory system which is programmed to retain heat as well as dissipate it. During hot weather where heat needs to leave the horse’s body, there are blood vessels right under the skin surface which kick into action and release the heat into the air around the horse. This whole mechanism works too in reverse order when the horse needs to retain heat.
The most obvious body feature that helps the horse self regulate and stay warm during cold weather is its fur coat, or as some may call it, winter coat. When winter approaches and days begin to get shorter and nighttime colder, the body mechanism of the horse reacts in its own special way by growing its winter coat.
These new set of hair grown naturally are longer and thicker than its summer coat which is gradually shed as the new one begin to grow. The horse maintains body heat by fluffing up the hair to trap much-needed body heat.
This action causes the individual hair to stand up, rather than lay flat against its skin. This is a similar action that can be found in humans when we react to cold weather and our hair pores open up to trap warm air, stopping it from escaping our bodies (a resultant effect we call ‘goosebumps’).
The tiny air pockets on the horse’s skin open up and trap warm air which is used to regulate its body temperature and act as insulation against the cold. This automatic response is called piloerection (1). The additional grease that accumulates on the surface of the skin as a result of fat layers provides extra insulation.
Finally, the horse’s feet and lower legs are designed to withstand cold and not chill the rest of the body. Horses can stand in the snow and not get cold feet. Their feet are made up of mostly bones and tendons which limits the effect of cold better than muscles.
Horses frequently shiver too. This is another body exercise that burns fuel in the muscles thereby generating warmth for the horse. Regular aerobic exercise is a great way to keep your horse fit and healthy. When a horse is worked up by taking short bursts during cold evenings, the body is heated up and burns calories which in turn produces the heat needed to stay warm.
Do Rugs Keep Horses Warm?
Rugs can be a great option to keep the horse warm during winter, but it does little to no serious job acting as insulation. However, if you’re inclined to use one, use only one clean and a deep-bodied waterproof rug that has a neck cover and a tail flap.
Using more rugs may seem logical, but it actually does nothing. Rather, it restricts the movement of the horse and increases the pressure on the withers.
- Goose bumps (link)