Many photos of mares and foals in books and magazines present idyllic scenes of horses in pasture settings, blessed with plenty of green grass and sunshine. If your current environment more closely resembles Siberia, you know such settings are only a fantasy.
Cold, But Not Wet
Here’s the good news: horses actually do better in cold temperatures than they do in hot, humid weather. On the flip side, to thrive in cold weather, horses need to be healthy, have a thick hair coat and not be subjected to wet conditions. You’ll also want to take extra precautions with vulnerable animals, which includes the very young and very old, horses that have recently been ill or stressed, and those new to the climate.
Many farms in cold regions leave yearlings outdoors through the winter, only bringing them into the barn during severe weather. Those young horses should always have a run-in shed in the pasture for shelter, especially to give a break from the wind.
A horse’s winter coat loses much of its protection when wet. This is why it’s important during winter to guard against conditions—rain, wet snow, strong wind, and even running around enough to get sweaty—that take away the hair coat’s insulating qualities.
Fighting the cold is physically demanding, so you’ll want to be sure yearlings are in prime physical condition. This means being up to date on all vaccinations, having adequate body weight, and being on a balanced nutrition program designed for growing horses. It’s essential that horses have plenty of good quality hay to eat during cold weather, as the digestive process helps them stay warm.
Young foals don’t have the body fat that older horses do, so it’s important to keep them from getting chilled, cautions Bob Coleman, Ph.D., extension horse specialist at the University of Kentucky.
In extremely cold weather, a new foal may need a heat lamp in the stall at night to add warmth. Always keep lamps away from bedding and other flammable materials to avoid the potential for starting a fire.
In 23 years of caring for mares and foals at Highcliff Farm in Delanson, New York, Suzie O’Cain came up with a clever way to protect foals born in frigid weather. When turning mare and foal outside for exercise, O’Cain tried foal blankets, but found they left a gap under the belly, so she turned to sweatshirts and had great success.
“We just cut a little slit in the neck and put the foal’s front legs through the sleeves, which stop just below their knees. The sweatshirt goes around the whole body and there’s not a gap underneath where they can get cold,” she explains. “They can’t twist it or get caught up in a buckle or anything. The foals have no problem with it, and it’s practical and inexpensive. They’re really warm and easy to wash.”
She adds that the sweatshirt solution is just for foals born in very cold weather, and that by the time they’re a few days old, most foals no longer need the added protection.
If and when you do use blankets, use the appropriate weight and warmth for the weather.
“Horse owners need to pay close attention to their horses when the weather changes. The big temperature changes to watch are when it is warm one day, cold the next, then maybe some precipitation,” says Coleman. “Those changes can really stress animals kept outdoors. Also, watch the environment in the barn and how it changes. Watch and adjust in concert with the weather as best you can. Sometimes with abrupt weather changes, horses can change their eating and drinking habits, which can make them susceptible to colic.”
“In winter, you really need to use your best animal husbandry practices and common sense,” adds O’Cain. “That will get you through any weather condition.”
Hydration is Still Vital in Winter
One cause of colic is reduced water consumption, so don’t underestimate the importance of clean, fresh water, even when it’s freezing outside. Horses eating hay will typically consume more water than when eating grass, so you want to be sure they have water constantly available. Don’t rely on snow as a water source!
“You need to have heated water tanks, whether it is an automatic tank with a built-in heater, or a stock tank to which you add a protected heating device,” says Coleman.
If the heating device isn’t built-in, it needs to be adequately protected so the horses can’t touch it. Electrical equipment must be properly grounded and set up so that horses can’t come in contact with cords or electrical devices. Always check water sources daily to make sure heaters are working.
In the barn you may want to use heated buckets. Look for models that are UL-tested and –approved.
Just because horses aren’t sweating doesn’t mean they don’t need salt. Adequate salt intake can help keeping horses drinking and loose salt is typically more appealing to horses than block salt.
Foals and young horses are equine kids, and cold weather brings out their playfulness. You can’t expect them to walk slowly and carefully just because the footing is slick.
Ice presents more problems than snow. Keep de-icing material at the barn and use at entrances to keep these areas ice-free for safety of both human and equines. Spread sand or stone dust on walking areas to provide traction for hooves. If paddocks have icy areas, horses may slip and fall, so you might not be able to turn out until conditions improve.
If you have days when safety dictates keeping your young horse inside, use that opportunity to spend some time in the stall with him. A few extra hours spent grooming and handling him now will help create trust and a foundation you can build on later.