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Shelters for Horses: Why They Might Not Use ThemBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · October 31, 2017

Equine experts recommend that horses have access to shelter to protect them from inclement weather. But if you’ve ever passed a field of horses in the dead of winter or the scorching heat, even if they have access to shelter, they often don’t seem to use it.

A recent review article* on the use of shade by horses reinforced the sentiments of equine behaviorists from times gone by who wrote, “Whether or not horses will make use of available shade has been the subject of debate by owners, managers, and researchers. Even when shade is available, the horse seldom uses it to escape the intense solar radiation of hot climates.”

Is this a classic case of, “Build it and they won’t come,” akin to leading a horse to water?

According to the review article authored by Kathryn Holcomb, Ph.D., a researcher in animal welfare from the University of California, Davis, horses do seek out shade; however, they simply have different behaviors and physiologies than humans that could make shade a comfort resource rather than an absolute care requirement.

For example, studies show that horses tend to use shade structures (a roof but no sides) and shelters (a roof and at least one wall) differently than one might expect. As described by Holcombe:

  • Horses do appear to voluntarily seek shade in sunny conditions, venturing out periodically to graze;
  • Social contact could be more important than seeking shade, as groups of horses have been observed along fence lines adjacent to one another on sunny days despite having shade available;
  • Shelter and shade appear to be construed as a resource as horses lower on the herd’s pecking order have been prevented access to it by more dominant horses;
  • Data on protection from insects provided by shade or shelter conflict, making predictions on whether or not horses seek shade to find relief from annoying insects unreliable;
  • Coat color does not appear to impact shade-seeking behavior; and
  • Draft horses appear to seek shade more than Arabians in hot temperatures, but no difference in Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds was noted.

Holcombe also noted, “Horses used shade at all times of the day but showed greatest use of shade or shelter in the morning prior to peak ambient temperature, the hottest part the day when conventional wisdom would predict maximum use.”

Factors that may impact a horse’s use of shade may include age (very young or old horses), horses in very poor body condition, and those with compromised health due to an underlying medical condition.

“In addition to excess body condition, where unnecessary fat makes it more difficult for horses to regulate their body temperatures in hot weather, diet selection also needs to be considered,” shared Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., an equine nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research (KER).

“The simple act of feed digestion produces heat, and some diets can produce more heat than others, making it difficult for horses to regulate their internal body temperature on hot, humid days,” she added.

Finally, prolonged exposure to rain and sun can negatively impact their skin and coats. Bio•Bloom PS (Bio-Bloom in Australia), which contains full-fat soybean meal, biotin, B vitamins, iodine, zinc, and methionine, will keep coats and hooves healthy year-round. Supplemental omega-3 fatty acids from EO•3 may also be helpful.

In sum, the solution to the shade and shelter dilemma appears to be, “Build it and they’ll use it if and when they feel like it,” which, as we know, is an attitude quite typical of our beloved horses!

*Holcomb, K.E. 2017. Is shade for horses a comfort resource or a minimum requirement? Journal of Animal Science. 95(9):4206-4212.