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Shelter Provides Warmth to Horses Even in Mild WintersBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · January 19, 2016

In many parts of the world, horses are maintained outdoors for the majority of each day regardless of temperature and wind chill. Outdoor housing is beneficial for weight management; digestive, joint, and respiratory health; and the mental state of horses that evolved to socialize, roam, and forage.

“According to researchers*, horses are capable of maintaining an appropriate internal body temperature in ambient temperatures ranging from -30° C to 30° C…a feat that humans have difficulty achieving without adequate housing, clothing, and modern heating and cooling units,” said Peter Huntington, B.V.Sc., M.A.C.V.Sc., director of nutrition at Kentucky Equine Research (Australia).

Five factors should be considered when keeping your horse warm this winter: ambient temperature, humidity, radiation from the sun, precipitation, and wind speed.

In addition, diet and breed can also impact the ability of horses to keep warm. For example, forage fermentation in the hindgut produces heat that fuels maintenance of body temperature. Bigger horses with a larger surface area lose more heat than smaller horses. The nutrition advisors at Kentucky Equine Research (KER) can assist with finding forage suitable for your horse.

To help horses owners better manage horses in cold weather, Jorgensen and colleagues observed the behavior of horses in cold weather (Denmark) to see if and when they sought shelter in either heated or unheated sheds.

“Interestingly, most horses included in the study preferred to remain outdoors regardless of the weather,” summarized Huntington.

Horses primarily sought shelter in the face of precipitation and wind even in milder conditions (i.e., temperatures above freezing). The study authors also found:

  • Heated shelter was primarily used when precipitation occurred;
  • Small warmbloods sought shelter before small coldbloods (drafts);
  • Horses with a higher body condition score used the shelters more frequently than their thinner counterparts, and;
  • Horses with a thicker haircoat spent more time outdoors than horses with thinner haircoats.

In sum, the most important take-home messages from the researchers were that shelter is necessary for all horses managed outdoors even in above-freezing temperatures in the face of precipitation, and that even with only unheated shelter available in inclement weather, shivering was rarely observed in unblanketed, unclipped horses.

*Jorgensen, G.H., L. Aanensen, C.M. Mejdell, et al. Preference for shelter and additional heat in horses exposed to Nordic winter conditions. Equine Veterinary Journal. In press.