If you aren’t wintering in Florida this year, you and your horses have likely dealt with some fairly extreme temperature changes. The wild swings from cold to warm and back again are hard on everyone, horses included. Now is a great time to revisit best practices for horse care in icy temperatures and during periods of temperature change.
How Temperature Changes Affect Horses
Severe temperatures changes can be tough on horses, whether they live inside or outside. A sudden Polar Vortex followed by a quick warm-up — and vice versa — can impact your horse’s appetite, water intake and exercise regimen. And any one of those changes alone can increase your horse’s risk of illness or colic.
A horse has a relatively small stomach, and its digestive system functions best when the horse is grazing slowly and continually. Very hot or very cold weather can lead a horse to be less enthusiastic about his grazing. And that change in food intake can upset the whole system and impact the horse’s digestive health.
Dehydration is a major factor in intestinal impaction colic. According to the University of Minnesota, a 1,000-pound horse requires at least 10 gallons of water daily. A show horse that’s being worked regularly likely needs more than that.
In warmer months, horses get some of their water intake from grazing lush grass in the pasture. Without that green paddock at his disposal in the wintertime, a horse needs to drink more water to compensate. Water intake needs also go up when you increase your horse’s feed — which is common practice in the colder months.
Exercise stimulates a horse’s digestive tract. Pastured horses can usually get the movement they need simply by walking around — assuming they can navigate any snow or ice on the ground.
A stall-bound horse has less freedom, but probably gets ridden regularly. There are times, though, when riding can be counterproductive to your horse’s health. If it’s too hot or too cold for rigorous exercise, try hand-walking instead.
Helping Horses Through Temperature Swings
Provide unlimited water.
Horses need an unlimited supply of clean, temperature-monitored water. Pastured horses cannot get the hydration they need from snow or ice. And stalled horses will drink less water from their bucket if it’s too hot or too cold.
You can also increase the horse’s salt intake, via electrolytes or a salt lick, to encourage him to drink more water.
Monitor food and water intake.
Keep close tabs on your horse’s food and water intake when temperatures are extreme or changing. Eating or drinking less can be both a symptom of digestive upset and a cause of digestive upset.
Shelter for pasture horses.
Pastured horses with their natural coats may not need blankets, but they do need shelter. Make sure they have a place to hang out that’s free of snow, ice and puddles.
Blankets for show horses.
Body clipped horses will need a collection of blankets to manage through changing weather conditions. See our blog post on when to blanket your horse for more information on this topic.
Adjust exercise routines.
Horses do need regular exercise to stay healthy, but that doesn’t always involve riding them. Rigorous exercise should be limited when temperatures are very cold or very hot.
Determining when it’s too cold or hot is more of an art form than a science. On the cold side, an arena temperature below 20 degrees is a reasonable cutoff point. But you should also consider the footing, the temperature difference between your horse’s stall and the arena, how fit your horse is and whether your horse is acclimated to that weather.
The cutoff point for “too hot to ride” is more complex, as horses react to heat differently. On hot days, it’s better to start slowly and watch your horse’s demeanor. A horse that doesn’t sweat or shows weakness and/or shallow breathing is not dealing with the heat effectively.
Warming up and cooling down
If you do end up riding through the weather changes, take extra time and care with warmups and cool-downs. Most of us humans would have a hard time sprinting around the block without warming up. And our horses need a good 10-minute-plus walk before we get them moving.
The cool-down is equally important. It gives a sweaty horse the chance to dry off and cool down his muscles and breathing gradually.