Originally posted on Academie Duello’s blog in January 2012
Needs of the Horse part II: Shelter
In respect to last week’s topic, food, and this week’s, shelter, humans and horses are opposite. Horses eat and drink an enormous quantity compared to us, and the consequences of going hungry or thirsty are potentially more serious (ulcers, colic, and other digestive upset) than they are for us. Unlike we hairless apes, however, horses are quite well adapted to inclement weather, and their shelter needs are minimal.
Rain and snow
During the autumn horses grow thick coats to protect them from the weather. A closer look will show a shorter dense underlayer to keep them warm, interspersed with longer hairs to help shed rain, and keep snow from sitting next to the skin. Horses can withstand a lot of precipitation before they are literally ‘soaked to the skin’. However, if you bring a wet horse in from the rain and start grooming him you may notice he gets irritated. This is because brushing the hair pushes water through the hair and onto the skin.* He wasn’t feeling the cold till you rubbed it in, so to speak! If a horse gets soaked through too often without time to dry, he’s prone to develop rain rot: a condition where bacteria grows next to the skin and can cause scabs and even bleeding.
* If you need to ride a horse that’s been standing in the rain the best thing to do is put a dry cooler on him and stuff handfuls of hay and straw under it. This lets air circulate while his body heat dries him and the cooler soaks up moisture. After half an hour he should be dry enough to groom.
Our Jack in his Winter Woolly coat.
Another factor that affects horses’ ability to withstand the damp is wind. A dry horse can stay fairly comfortable in the wind by turning her tail towards it and, if possible huddling with her herd-mates, with the occasional gallop to warm-up. (This is why horses are more prone to bucking and other such friskiness on cold windy days). However, if her coat is wet, the wind drives the moisture next to the skin and then carries heat off with it, making it much more difficult for the horse to stay warm. To produce heat a horse must eat much more forage than usual, and can lose weight drastically if he has to resort to burning body fat to keep the chill off.
Heat is generally more difficult for horses to cope with than cold. Their body mass to surface area is greater than ours, meaning they are more prone to overheat. Adaptations in more heat-adapted breeds such as the Arabian include fine summer coats, legs with almost no flesh on them, distensible nostrils and very fine skin on the face to promote heat loss through respiration and sweating. Horses sweat to lose heat, and in the dry climates they evolved in this works well. However, when the humidity is high evaporation of sweat does not happen fast enough too keep a horse cool, and heat-stroke can set in.
Not so much weather, but a consequence of it, mud is something to which horses are very poorly adapted. When standing in constant wet their hooves absorb water and become less tough. The anaerobic conditions around the frog can promote the growth of bacteria and fungus, leading to thrush or hoof abcesses. They may get clags of mud on the pasterns, which in turn pull away, cracking the skin and letting bacteria in, a condition known as ‘scratches’ or ‘mud fever’.
What’s a horse-owner to do?
It’s actually not difficult to provide the weather protection needed by horses. A walk-in shed in a paddock will provide enough of a wind-break and dry spot for your horse to stay comfortable all winter, and will give him the shade he needs in the summer if trees aren’t available. Note that some horses, even if they have a shelter, will sometimes choose to stand in the rain. As long as your horse isn’t shivering you can assume she simply doesn’t mind the rain.
If horses don’t have a shelter, they need to be blanketed with at least a rain sheet to keep moisture off. Blankets creates other issues: horses can become entangled in them, are prone to tearing them, and sometimes get rubs from ill-fitting ones. Furthermore, blankets press down the hair, eliminating air-space and can often make horses colder than if they were undressed. Nonethless, it may be necessary to blanket for warmth if your horse is clipped so he can cool down faster in winter.
Bringing horses into a barn for the night in rainy climates will help their coats and feet dry out. If they must stand in a muddy paddock all day (and here in the Wet Coast it’s sometimes unavoidable) pick their feet frequently, gently towel-dry their legs, and monitor pasterns for scratches.
Horses get along quite nicely in arid climates: for anything else, they appreciate our accomodations.