Writing Horses: Horses in Winter

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Even if I hadn’t already decided to answer commenter Acyn’s question and talk about horses in winter, the universe would have made sure I will do exactly that. First as I was avoiding work—er, noodling on twitter, I came across this delightful thread, not about horses but about emus in winter. And then as I pulled myself back to the blank page, an email came in with a link to an equine nutritionist’s article on—yes, horses in winter.

Dr. Thunes offers a concise checklist for horsekeepers in a colder climate, specifically the UK or the northern tiers of North America. She happens to have migrated south, to a city just a couple of hours’ drive from my horse farm outside of Tucson, Arizona. It’s a good checklist, aimed at the experienced horse owner, but worth a look for what it has to say about what horses need as the season changes from warm to cold.

We’ve had an unusually warm year here, and it still feels like late fall rather than the gate of winter. Yet there are indications of change. It was over 80F/20C on Monday. By Friday morning, the temperature will hover around freezing, preceded by a spate of cold wind and rain. Even in regions where the range isn’t quite so dramatic, there’s still a point at which the barn manager has to switch over from summer to winter horsekeeping.

For some that’s an actual nomadic operation: moving the herds from the summer to the winter pastures. From lush grass (now thoroughly grazed down) and relatively cool temperatures and free access to water, to such grazing as the climate will support, relative warmth, and shelter from the winter storms. The horses will be carrying extra weight, if possible, to help them through the leaner months; and thick, one-to-three-inch/2.5-7.5cm winter coats will be replacing their flat, sleek summer attire.

In more settled areas and cultures, the migration will amount at most to a rotation of pastures, a shift of the herds closer to the barns. But many stables don’t have that much land, or the luxury of moving the horses from their established pastures and stalls. When winter is something to be adapted to on the spot rather than avoided as much as possible, horsekeepers do what they have to in order to keep their charges healthy, fed, and protected from the weather.

In warm weather, horses are generally cheaper to feed. They can survive all or partly on grass pasture, as they were evolved to do, and may be supplemented minimally if at all depending on the quality and quantity of the pasture and the individual metabolism of the horse. Even in areas (like my Sonoran desert) where grass is far too expensive for the average farm or ranch to irrigate, the hay bill goes down (though the water bill goes significantly up) as horses require fewer calories to survive.

Colder weather means those big bodies need more groceries. More hay, more grain. The colder it gets, the more fuel the horse needs.

Farms and ranches lay in stocks of hay to last through the winter. In areas where the hay supply drops off sharply once the snow flies, the barn owner will hope and pray that that supply lasts until spring–because if it doesn’t, it may be difficult or impossible to get more. They may have to resort to importing it at a high price from elsewhere, or to some form of processed hay—cubes, pellets, or (with caution) haylage. Simply feeding horses grain is a bad idea and may be fatal: horses are not designed to live on concentrates, and need a large quantity of roughage. In desperation, farms may feed straw (oat is much preferable to wheat) and fill in the nutrients with a judicious amount of grain plus vitamin and mineral supplements.

Heated barns do exist in colder climates, and barns built to retain heat (heavily insulated, built into hillsides, etc.) are common. Once you’ve got a number of animals with a normal body temperature around 100F/38C, their own heat will concentrate in the space and maintain a steady temperature well above freezing. Horses being steppe animals who function best at temperatures around 50F/10C, that’s quite comfortable for them.

With good, thick winter coats and dry cold or snow without too much wind, horses can be perfectly happy outside all winter long. Add high winds however and cold rain, and the loft of the coat that provides warmth gets flattened to nothing and the horse begins to descend toward hypothermia. Same applies to early, severe cold and storms that hit before the horse has grown out their winter coat, and swings in temperature such as ours in the past week.

It takes ten to fourteen days for a horse to fully acclimate to a significant change in temperature. If the swing is too dramatic one way or the other, they’ll suffer from stress. Stress usually means colic, as well as suppression of the immune system that can lead to illness.

For the horse’s keeper, that means being on alert to sudden changes in temperature, as well as generally aware of and watchful for the overall change of season. They’ll encourage the horse to drink more water by such expedients as adding salt or electrolytes to the feed, feeding a warm mash of bran or grain or beet pulp, or actually wetting the hay before it’s fed. This keeps the digestive system moving and prevents impaction, and may also calm down the stomach to stave off gas colic. They’ll feed more hay, sometimes two or three times the summer ration, and carefully increase the grain and concentrates (keeping a constant and careful eye on the horse’s digestive stability). They may install a water heater as horses are not fond of cold water, or at least make sure the water supply is clean and free of ice.

Horses will continue to need exercise; they can’t simply be shut up in boxes until spring. In cold climates, the farm with the covered riding arena is much in demand, and if that arena is heated, it will fill up in the fall and stay full until spring inspires horse owners to turn their horses out on pasture (and ride outside) through the summer. Horses may still go out in the pastures or paddocks when weather and footing permit, though mud or ice or snow or a combination of all three may close the outdoor riding facilities.

As to what the horses will wear, or not wear, during the cold weather, there’s a near-religious argument between the blanket believers and the “horses are cold-weather animals, let them toughen up and handle it on their own” set. In barns full of riders, horses may be clipped to minimize the time spent cooling down shaggy, sweaty mounts after riding; but a clipped horse is a horse deprived of their defense against the cold. They have to be blanketed—and they may have a whole wardrobe of blankets, sheets, coolers, and scrims for all temperatures and weather conditions.

Even a horse with a winter coat might own a blanket or two, and possibly a waterproof rain sheet. Anti-blanketers will disdain such things, but blanket believers point out that sudden changes in temperature can leave the horse at a loss, shivering and headed toward colic; and a cold rain, with wind, can render the coat inoperable. Overzealous believers can over-wrap their horses and cause them to be worse off than before: sweating profusely under heavy blankets while the sun beats down, or shivering in sheets that provide no warmth while flattening the coat into uselessness underneath.

But then there is that night when the horse goes to bed at 70F/21C and clear, and wakes up at 40F/4C and sleeting sideways; or when the blue norther comes roaring over the ridge and drops the temperature thirty degrees in twenty minutes, and then it starts to snow. Horse coats deal well with snow; it sits on top and the horse stays warm underneath. But when the snow melts and flattens the coat and the wind cuts through, the horse is not so happy.

Modern horse blankets are a model of engineering. Those meant for outdoor use are waterproof and breathable, and lightweight linings and fill add warmth without greatly increasing the weight. They stay in place with amazing ease, even when the horse runs or bucks or rolls. They’re a marvel. It’s still a challenge to get them on a wiggly or obstreperous horse in a wet gale, but nothing like what our predecessors had to cope with.

Before synthetics, the horse blanket or rug was a massive, heavy, unwieldy thing. In the stable he might be content with a large version of the wool bed blanket, but the horse working outside or on pasture had to either hope that soaked wool would keep them warm, or try their luck with waxed or oiled canvas, lined with wool or flannel or, for cold weather, fleece. Getting these monsters on and off was an athletic feat, and keeping them clean and mended (because horses love to rip themselves and their clothes to pieces) was a full-time job for the strong-fingered stablehand.

With six of them to keep covered when the weather calls for it, I’m glad I live in the future. I keep an old fleece-lined, waxed canvas rug, a gift from a friend in Minnesota, to remind me of what it used to be like to try to keep the horses warm when the weather quite conclusively wasn’t. But tonight I’ll be pleased to put on their lightweight raincoats, including my favorite, the one with the print of flying doughnuts. With sprinkles. The mare who wears it will be nice and dry come morning, and protected from the wind as well; she’ll very much enjoy her extra ration of hay.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks. She’s written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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