If you’ve ever even considered getting a horse, you may be worried about keeping your horse safe in extreme weather. While most people assume that the bitter cold of winter is the most dangerous, that’s not always the case. Horses are very adaptable animals. They can survive both hot and cold climates. But, when they are subjected to a drastic change in weather, they begin to struggle.
Is hot or cold weather the most dangerous for my horse? Both hot and cold weather can negatively impact a horse and put it at high risk. The most significant risk for a horse is to experience sudden temperature change without time to adjust. Spring and Fall present the greatest risk to horse health because of the ever-changing weather. Horses naturally grow thicker hair during the cold winter months and shed it during the hot summer months. Still, transitional seasons are difficult because they aren’t naturally prepared for extreme or sudden weather changes.
During wide temperature fluctuations and sudden extreme weather, the best defense for your horse is to make sure you are providing quality feed, plenty of clean water, and shelter from the elements. But, the specific needs of your horse will change if it’s scorching versus extremely cold or wet. Let’s dive in.
Cold Winter Danger for Horses
Climate fluctuations between early fall and late spring can be harder on horses than winter cold or summer heat. That’s because the horse has not already grown its winter hair or shed out during summer.
One of the best ways of protecting horses from severe weather changes is to provide a good windbreak or adopt an open-faced shed during winter.
Good Nutrition Helps Horses Cope with Cold Weather
As long as your horse is healthy and has good nutrition, an open shelter will moderate the temperature changes during extreme cold. Through good food, your horse will build a good layer of fat under the skin. That coupled with a good hair coat will help your horse retain most of its body heat.
Without proper nutrition, a horse will not handle the sudden cold, especially if it is undernourished and not consuming enough foliage. Horses generate body heat through the fermentation of fiber. Healthy horses can effectively regulate body heat for their comfort. That’s why you should not restrain your horse too much during extreme cold. A restrained horse cannot thermo-regulate itself. Most horse breeds are adapted to cold temperatures. You might find your horse on the pastures on a chilly morning and assume that it is in distress, many temperature fluctuations, But it is not.
- Provide extra foilage (hay) during fall and winter months
- Hay mix that’s higher in Alfalfa provides more calories to help with body heat
- Provide warmer water to encourage horses to
The Winter Coat Makes a Difference
As long as a horse has a good winter coat, it can even handle a blizzard. However, that same horse might not handle a spring storm, especially in the middle of warm temperatures. That’s because rain or snow is wet.
The natural oil found in horses’ hair adds a waterproofing effect. During cold weather, the moisture from snow slides off before it gets to the skin. The situation is a little different for wet snow or prolonged rain. The moisture from wet weather eventually soaks the hair, causing it to lose the insulating effect. If during temperature fluctuations, your horses are fully clipped, then they should be housed in an appropriate shelter and blanketed well moving into spring.
Cold Weather Horse Breeds
A horse’s breed affects his ability to adapt to sudden cold snaps. For example, the Norwegian Fjord and the Shetland pony are more comfortable in extreme cold. But, a Thoroughbred has less hair and struggles more in the cold.
The top cold-tolerant horse breeds include:
- Yakut Horse (Siberian native)
- Icelandic Horse
- Bashkir Horse
- Kabarda Horse
- Finn Horse
- Shetland Pony
- Quarter Horses
Keeping Horses Safe in Hot Weather
During extreme heat, your horse needs shade to ensure effective airflow and promote sweat evaporation. It’s more critical that your horse has shade for the head. Whereas open sheds are considered great for horses, horses are not always fond of them as they do not provide much airflow. Horses prefer a cool breeze, so they would rather stand out in the full sun to get a breeze.
Use caution when exercising a horse in hot weather conditions. During exercise, a horse produces a 50% increase in body heat. After exercising a horse in hot conditions, make sure that you cool the horse properly.
Signs of Heat Stress In Horses
Horses display many signs of heat stress. If heat stress remains prolonged, it can severely harm the health and safety of your horse. There are several increasingly worse signs of heat stress in horses. Check out How Hot Can Horses Tolerate? Horse Safety In Extreme Heat
Dehydration in Horses
Dehydration is often the first sign of heat stress and, if addressed early, doesn’t cause any permanent harm to a horse. A dehydrated horse will appear lethargic and have a dull expression. If you suspect dehydration, pinch your horse’s skin. If the skin sticks together, your horse is dehydrated. Another way to check your horse’s hydration is to press the gums above their teeth. If the gums remain white for more than 2 seconds, your horse is dehydrated. A dehydrated horse will also have darker, more pungent urine.
Heat Exhaustion in Horses
When a horse cannot cool itself down because of dehydration or extreme heat, it suffers heat exhaustion. A horse with heat exhaustion will have an increased temperature of 104-108 degrees Farrenheit. Horses that were previously hot or dehydrated will usually stop sweating when heat exhaustion sets in.
Horses with heat exhaustion will have an irregular or increased pulse. While at rest, a horse has a normal heartbeat range of between 24 and 40 beats per minute. However, a heat-stressed horse has a heartbeat rate of over 50 beats per minute.
You may also notice your horse panting or gulping air. A horse that breaths more than 60 times in a minute is struggling with heat stress and failing to cool down.
If you suspect heat exhaustion, check your horse’s skin. More than 6 seconds to depress is a sign of heat exhaustion. Decreased intestinal sounds, irregular heartbeat, poor posture, and discolored gums are additional signs of heat exhaustion.
Heat Stroke In Horses
When a horse’s internal temperature remains above 106 degrees for an extended period or reaches 108 degrees Fahrenheit, it has heatstroke. At this point, your horse is in severe danger of permanent health issues or death. Heatstroke can permanently damage a horse’s brain, organs and threaten its life.
A horse that’s suffering from heatstroke will struggle with its cognitive abilities. They will often stumble, struggle to move, act erratically, anxious, or disoriented. Your horse may act oblivious to external factors, look depressed, or fail to respond to you or commands. One of the final signs of heatstroke is a collapse.
If you suspect heatstroke or heat exhaustion, call your vet immediately and take swift action to help cool your horse down.
Steps To Cool Your Horse Down
If you establish that your horse is suffering from heat stress or exhaustion, the best possible recourse is to have a veterinarian administer intravenous fluids. These fluids prevent severe dehydration by replacing what the horse has already lost.
If you are out on the trail and there is no possible way of getting a veterinarian to administer the intravenous fluids, use any means possible to cool your horse, such as providing unlimited water, slowing or ceasing exercise, and finding shade. If you have some alcohol with you, pour it into the water, then rub it on the horse’s body. The solution ends up aiding evaporations, thereby speeding up the cooling effect.
The question of which between hot and cold weather is more dangerous for your horse depends on the degree of extremity. This means that depending on what extreme conditions the horse is subjected to, there is possible risk and even worst-case scenarios. Horses are adapted to both hot and cold climatic conditions. Their bodies have an internal mechanism that can self-regulate to maintain normal body temperatures. However, frigid weather is riskier for the horse, especially if the duration of the cold season is long, such as during winter.
Of course, the horse will adapt quickly, but there are certain extreme conditions, such as in the event of a prolonged blizzard, that the horse might not be able to handle. Hot weather conditions too are not good for the horse. However, as the horse owner, there are remedial actions where you can step in and help the horse overcome heat stress.
That said, horses are well adapted to both hot and cold climates. Only when there is a sudden change from either a hot to a cold climate and vice versa does the problem arise. Horses will tend to struggle with the change when they are hauled from one climate to the other. It is, therefore, up to you as the horse owner to help them adjust to the change.