Mid-south temperatures at the end of December could have been posted for the upper Midwest. How should horse owners respond to extended subfreezing temperatures? How much turnout time is safe? Do horses need to be stalled in freezing temps? Barn managers and horse owners’ response to these winter days is as vast as the horses and activities they pursue with their equine.
Wild horses and northern climate horses do well in sub-zero temperatures. Nature provides quite well for horses in both their instinct and seasonal changes in hair coat. Horses will naturally seek shelter from wind to maintain their body temperature. And most have hair so thick and insulating, that snow will pile-up and not even melt. They also seek the sun to warm themselves. Stick your fingers deep into the hair of a dark horse on a sunny day and feel how very warm the skin is. Thoughtfully placing shelters in turnout lots will help horses maximize their exposure to sun and minimize exposure to wind.
Horses in the mid-south tend to be very active throughout the winter, and as such, have different challenges during deep-freeze days. Some horses may be partially, or fully clipped thus needing blankets or stabling to keep warm. Some have shoes, making frozen and possibly icy ground treacherous. Paddocks that have become rutted from extended rain can be painful, even dangerous, for horses to walk over when the ground freezes. Depending on the condition of the ground, horse owners may opt to limit time outside. Others may have the luxury of large, grassy pastures that provide good footing even when frozen. Muddy lots may freeze on top but remain muddy below so it can be slippery, especially when horses start running around on a brisk morning. Often there is rain preceding a deep dive in temps so it is important to walk the area where your horses will be once the ground is frozen.
For horses that are stalled more than normal there are a few environmental conditions to evaluate. The utmost importance is air quality. Horses kept in stalls with barn doors closed are at risk of being exposed to elevated levels of ammonia, a potential danger to horses’ upper respiratory tract. Cleaning stalls several times a day will help. Horses can become bored or cranky when stalled for an extended period. Frequently feeding hay and stall toys may entertain your confined horse. If possible walk them in the barn aisle or indoor arena for a bit of exercise to calm their mind and keep their legs limber.
Joanna Wilburn, owner, trainer, and manager at Rollingwoods Farm in Olive Branch, Miss., along with sisters: Dr. Ruth Wilburn and Sally Ross Wilburn Davis, were the 2020 USEF Ellen Scripps Davis Memorial Breeders’ Cup award winners proving their knowledge in breeding, managing and raising Welsh ponies for performance and show. Their ponies are not hot house flowers. “Preferably they stay out 24/7 with run-in sheds, but they tend to stay out, even in cold rain,” Joanna explains. The ponies have access to round grass bales 24/7 and all receive small square bales of higher test grass hay twice a day. Joanna notes the round bales keep them busy and warm. In bad weather she gives more of the richer hay. All ponies come into the barn twice daily to be fed. “If they’re wet or shivering they stay in the stall longer to dry out before going out again. With prolonged wet, cold weather they all get under cover in the barn or arena until they dry out and then they go back out again. At Rollingwoods the emphasis is on ponies living outside ‘being horses’” Joanna is quick to add.
Windyrein Farm owner and manager, Kim Carpenter Clark, describes their plan when extreme winter weather hits their farm in Eads, Tenn. “We have Eventers, Jumpers, and Dressage horses in training who are typically turned out overnight. These horses are accustomed to being in stalls on a 12-and-12 schedule: twelve hours in and 12 hours out. When the temps get frigid we keep them stalled and prioritize water and hay consumption, while trying to keep their routine as unchanged as possible. When they are able to be turned back out, we make sure they have access to water and throw as much hay to them as possible. We monitor windchill and blanket them based on their coat and if they are body clipped. We find the amount of layers needed can be very breed specific, Thoroughbreds needing the most blanketing. Of course, the body clipped horses wear as many layers as they need, including hoods. We do not turn out in cold rain, blanketed or not.” Living onsite makes this around the clock care possible when the occasional arctic blast dips into the mid-south.
In summary, there are a few simple management tools to help your horses make it through frigid winter days. Keeping your horse’s internal heater fueled is key to surviving temperatures below freezing. A horse’s gut produces heat when digesting hay and water keeps the gut from becoming impacted. Offering hay several times a day and providing warm (not icy) water will ensure your horse’s heater does its job. Shelter from wind, cold rain, and snow allows the natural hair coat to maintain its insulating properties and reduces heat loss from windchill. Blankets in several weights provide warmth for those horses with inadequate hair coats. Having a second blanket is a good idea in case one becomes wet from rain or melting snow. Winter is barely getting started, but following the recent arctic blast, it’s important to make plans before the next Snomageddon hits the region.