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Horses in winter

A British Winter can present a wide variety of weather conditions; from gales and driving rain to hard frosts and snow. Many horses are kept outside all year round and need to be able to cope whatever the weather. Their natural hardiness may have to be supplemented with additional support depending on the individual and the circumstances in which they are kept. There are a lot of factors to consider when assessing to what extent an equine can cope and how their Winter might be made more comfortable.

Natural Hardiness

The breeding of a horse or pony plays a significant part in how its body manages in different weather conditions. Horses and ponies that are native to Britain have evolved with a hardiness which makes them able to cope with quite severe Winter weather without ill effect. Originally all equines in Britain were small ponies. They lived as wild animals and the amount of food available to them in Winter limited how big the species could grow. Anything too big would have lost weight, become susceptible to the elements and would have been unlikely to survive a long or hard Winter.

As humans developed bigger and stronger equines for our own purposes, larger ponies and horses had to rely on people to provide them with extra food in the Winter and/or shelter to help them to preserve their energy reserves. A thin equine will feel the cold and use up stored fat to maintain its bodily warmth, thereby losing more weight. Horses in work will need even more food as they will also be using up energy to carry out their tasks.

Breeds from warmer countries, such as Thoroughbreds and Arabs, are well able to cope with our hot summers, but are not equipped for British Winters. They do not use their nutritional energy as efficiently, do not tend to store so much fat and do not grow such a thick winter coat. Many owners of warm or hot blooded horses tend to stable their equines overnight to shelter them from the weather. Even in a stable, most of the finer breeds will need a rug and plenty of food. There is no reason, however, why even a pure bred Arab or Thoroughbred cannot live out all year round with appropriate care. By providing a field shelter, a good quality Winter rug and a well thought out diet, the balance between energy intake and energy output should be manageable throughout the colder months.

Horse wearing a winter rug in the winter

Protection from the Elements

All equines grow an extra layer of hair in the Autumn which is extremely effective at keeping the elements out and body heat in. People are often shocked to see horses standing with snow across their backs, but in fact this demonstrates just how well their coat is working: if we put snow on our own skin, escaping body heat would melt it in a few seconds.

Horses with large coat of hair to keep warm

The coat also helps to protect the horse from rain. The hair is coated with waterproof oils which act as a barrier against even severe downpours and the direction of hair growth helps to channel water into tiny rivulets which then run off the body. If you look closely at a horse’s coat you will be able to see little patterns and whirls in the hair which create this clever water management system. Horses that are turned out on Winter days are liable to end up looking muddy and dishevelled, but in fact too much grooming can be unhelpful as it removes some of the oils from the coat, making it much less effective in its waterproofing role.

Rugs

Different breed requirements go some way towards explaining why some horses are rugged and some not. Age, health and living environment should also be taken into account when an owner decides whether or not to rug their horse. Some working horses will be clipped in Winter to prevent them becoming uncomfortable when being ridden or driven; these will certainly need a rug to compensate. A horse that is able to cope well in cold temperatures may become uncomfortably hot if rugged unnecessarily and horses in general actually find it harder than humans to cool down once they have overheated, because their bodies are so efficient at keeping the heat in.

Ideally rugs should be removed once a day to check underneath. If the horse has sweated in the rug (which can easily happen if they have a quick charge about or the sun comes out) the build up of humidity can lead to skin problems. Natural hair loss will also build up under a rug and can become itchy and unpleasant. Removing the rug gives the body and inside of the rug a chance to breathe and allows the owner to check that all is well underneath. It is harder to tell if a horse has lost or gained weight underneath a rug and removing the rug is the only way of checking that everything is as it should be.

Water

Most people worry whether horses have enough water on hot Summer days, but water can be as much of a problem in Winter. Frosty nights can freeze water and leave horses without water for several hours. The first job any owner should do in the morning is to break ice on water troughs and buckets and check it regularly throughout the day if the temperature stays low.

Whereas humans tend to drink more water on warm Summer days, horses can actually drink more in the Winter if they are eating dry food like hay and concentrates, rather than grass which is around 80% water.

Providing Shelter

Many people are surprised when we tell them that providing shelter is not a legal requirement. Shelter is always a strong recommendation for horses kept outside and can be as much of a benefit in Summer as Winter. A manmade shelter should be provided and erected by a professional to ensure that it is safe and able to withstand strong winds. It should be cleared of droppings each day, just like a stable, and an area of clean bedding will make it more comfortable if the horse wants to lie down.

In the wild, horses rely on natural shelter provided by trees and hollows in the ground. Even with a top notch field shelter, many equines will choose to stand outside and use it as a wind break rather than go inside.

Horses standing outside a shelter in the winter

Many feral ponies in Britain live in remote and exposed areas of the country. Native ponies are often called ‘mountain and moorland’ ponies as this is the sort of environment they inhabited because this is where the largest expanses of grasslands were, providing them with their favourite food. Although it is not nice to see horses and ponies living without any shelter at all and standing with their head down looking thoroughly fed up in driving rain, if they have a good Winter coat, or have been provided with a rug, and have enough food to maintain their body condition, they will almost certainly be able to manage until the bad weather has passed.

Ground Level

Many of the complaints Redwings receives through any wet period of weather is that horses are standing in mud or even water and that there is no grass for them to eat. Unfortunately horses are heavy animals with feet that quickly churn up soft ground and there is nothing that anyone can do about this. Horse owners can try and manage their land to minimise the damage in a number of ways, but these all need some input of money or space that many people do not have. Some options that owners can consider include:

  • Resting an area of pasture over Winter. Either reserve a separate field or use electric tape to cordon off an area that your horse can enjoy once the ground has dried out and the grass is growing again in the spring.
  • Putting drainage in the most used areas of the field, which tend to be near the gate, in front of field shelters and around hayrings and water tanks. Straw can provide a temporary reprieve from deep mud, but hardcore, if laid well, will provide a more long term solution. Pick through whatever material is used to make sure there are no objects that could injure the bottom of the horse’s foot and avoid using flints or other sharp edged stone. Flatten the surface as much as possible to eliminate projecting edges. Even then, horses with very sensitive soles may refuse to walk over a hardcore surface and are happier in the mud!
  • Putting down a strawpad (as long as your horse does not have a dust allergy) which can provide a comfy, dry area for eating hay or even snoozing. This will need completely removing in the spring and will kill the grass underneath so needs to be thought through first.

    Horses on a strawpad

  • Creating an all-weather turnout area. This is the most expensive option, but can be well worth the initial expense. Woodchip, shredded rubber or even concrete, if properly laid and fenced can provide a safe, dry area which can be useful on many occasions, not just in Winter. These are particularly useful for equines who suffer from arthritis or mud fever. A very hard area such as conrete such always be supplemented with some straw, shavings or other softer area to allow a horse to lie down comfortably and safely when it wants.

Muddy ground will inevitably have very little grass on it and even without mud, grass will not grow when the temperature drops below 5 degrees centigrade. Most owners will compensate for the lack of grass by providing hay or barley straw and/or regular servings of a supplementary horse feed. People in the local area may not see evidence of this extra food, but please remember that as long as the horses are in good bodily condition, it means that they are getting the nutrition they need. It can be difficult to judge the bodily condition of an equine in Winter without handling it (and no one should ever approach an equine that they do not know). Horses’ Winter coats make it even more difficult to see exactly what is going underneath their fluffy extra layer. If you would like more information about judging body condition, please email us at welfare@redwings.co.uk.

People are often concerned about a condition called ‘mud fever’ which affects the horse’s legs and is especially associated with skin being exposed to bacteria that is naturally present in the soil. Mud fever is a nasty condition and can be very difficult to treat completely when it has taken hold. A horse with muddy legs will not automatically get mud fever, however, and many horses can spend all Winter in muddy ground without a problem, whilst other horses only have to look at a dirty puddle to be afflicted! Some horses seem to have more sensitive skin and be prone to the condition. Prevention is much better than cure, as always, but no action can be taken against an owner for their horse having dirty feet if they are not showing signs of actually developing mud fever.

Tethering

Frequent reports received by Redwings in the Winter concern tethered equines. Many of the issues already discussed here such as lack of grazing and lack of shelter apply particularly to equines that are managed in this way. Tethering is far from ideal as a way of keeping horses, but it is not illegal.

Tethered horses are invariably placed in exposed areas as they need to be kept away from anything that they could tangle their tether rope or chain on. They will generally not have a food or water bucket left with them, but water is brought at regular intervals to prevent them from becoming dehydrated and food may either be brought at the same time or the tether may be moved to provide them with a fresh area of grass. Again, it is important to look at the condition of the animal to judge whether they are getting enough food, not the circumstances in which they are kept. Most horses and ponies that are kept on a tether are the very hardiest of native breeds such as Welsh cobs or Shetlands. These are very well equipped to deal with exposure to the elements and usually cope on very meagre rations. You can read more information about tethering.

Donkeys

Donkeys require a higher level of care in the Winter than many horses and ponies. Coming from the very different climate of Africa, donkeys are not naturally suited to our wet British weather and will need a helping hand to stay happy and healthy all year round.

Donkeys in a shelter

Donkeys do not have the same amount of waterproof oil in their coats and for this reason shelter is much more important for them. Even if they are wearing a rug, a proper shelter should also be available to them at all times. Donkeys really don’t like being wet and cold and they are so sensitive that unhappiness with their circumstances can actually be enough to make them ill.

For more information on these very special animals, please read Redwings' Donkey Care leaflet.

Veteran Winter Care

Older horses, ponies and donkeys will often require extra care and TLC than their younger, more robust companions. Even hardy native types that have sailed through every Winter without a problem for most of their life may get to a stage where they require a rug for the first time, or extra feed to keep them in good bodily condition. Bodies change with age and owners should always monitor aging equines carefully to watch for signs that they are starting to need some extra support.

Older equines requiring extra care

Winter can be a tricky season for old timers with conditions like arthritis, tooth problems or breathing disorders. Protecting veterans from the elements by tucking them up in a stable can seem the kindest way to see them through the Winter, but turnout can be more beneficial for stiff joints or sensitive lungs. Stables should always be well ventilated, only good quality hay or haylage fed and bedding mucked out vigilantly to prevent the build up of ammonia from urine. A stable should always be large enough for the horse to move around comfortably and lie down if it wants. Placing hay in different corners of the stable may encourage the horse to keep moving around every so often to keep the joints moving.

Horses with teeth that are starting to struggle with the tough fibres of hay and haylage are going to need another source of nutrition during periods where there is not enough grass to sustain them. Symptoms of teeth problems include quidding (dropping food, often as half chewed pellets), laboured chewing, loss of appetite, bad breath and headshaking. These problems can become evident when the horse is trying to eat fibre, rather than when on grass, which is easier to eat. Soaked fibre nuts or conditioning cubes, depending on the needs of the individual, can provide everything that a horse needs without the need for hay. However it can be more demanding on the owner as the feed should be split into 3 or 4 portions given at regular intervals through the day to keep their digestive system ticking over according to the 'little and often' feeding principle.

For more information on providing for the stabled horse please read Redwings’ ‘Horse Health and Happiness’ leaflet.

For more information on caring for older equines, please read Redwings’ ‘Retiring Gracefully’ leaflet.

For more information on feeding equines please read Redwings’ ‘Food for Thought’ leaflet.

Legal Requirements

Many horses, ponies and donkeys go through each Winter without receiving the care we would like them to benefit from. Welfare organisations are always happy to offer advice, support and encouragement but cannot take stronger action unless the person responsible for the horses is in breach of animal welfare law.

To help people understand where the boundaries of the law lie with particular reference to their living environment, the following summary may help:

  • Providing a shelter is not a legal requirement. If an equine is suffering from cold this will soon become evident in loss of body condition.
  • Mud is generally unavoidable during the Winter. Unless the mud is causing or exacerbating a veterinary condition, the owner has not broken the law.
  • Being caked in mud does not mean that the horse is neglected. Horses will often deliberately roll in mud to help create an extra layer to protect them from the elements.
  • Seeing horses without food does not mean that they are not getting any. Most native ponies would become obese if they were to have access to unlimited quantities of food, even in very cold weather. An equine needs the right amount of food to keep it in good bodily condition. Look at the body of the equine to check if it is in good condition: if so, it means that the horse is getting enough food.
  • Tethering is not illegal in any weather conditions. As long as the horse is in reasonable body condition and is not being caused injury by its tethering apparatus, then the owner has not broken the law

By learning a bit more about horses and how they are designed to cope with the elements it is hoped that more people will be able to assess when a horse is managing in its living environment (even if it doesn’t look very pretty!) and when it needs help. No one at Redwings wants anyone to be worrying unnecessarily about horses that are coping well with the elements and may even be benefiting from their natural lifestyle.

You can download a PDF of this information here.

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