It’s cold and snowing, and an icy wind is blowing across the country. What effects does this have on our horses, when do they freeze or do horses freeze at all? Are there rules for when horses should be covered? And what is thermoregulation all about? In this article, you will find important information about these questions!
Thermoregulation – How do horses in cold weather keep warm
In the great outdoors, there are neither warm stables nor thermal blankets for horses. They also do not retreat to caves in cold weather, storms and rain. Apart from the fact that they shelter under a few trees or the like when it rains too heavily, their whole body is designed to defy the weather and protect themselves from the cold and wet. The horse’s most important organs are located deep inside their body, where they are well protected from hypothermia, surrounded by fat, muscles, skin and fur. On the other hand, they are also held by the bloodstream. The blood circulation plays a particularly important role in thermoregulation. When the outside temperature drops, the horse’s body draws the blood back from the outer layers, especially the skin, to protect it from cooling down and to ensure that it keeps the inside of the body warm. When the temperature rises again, the blood flows back into the skin. In the heat, the horse sweats, which leads to the cooling of the skin. Thus, the blood’s cooling. Such is now transported further inside the horse, where it prevents overheating due to the colder temperature. Because it stores heat above the skin, the winter coat is essential for the horse’s thermal regulation.
Structure, structure and function of the horse’s
The winter coat of a horse, like that of many animals, consists of two layers of hair: the short, dense undercoat or the undercoat and, on the other hand, the long, overlying outer coat. The undercoat consists of many short, thick and very dense hairs. These form a thick, plush layer under the topcoat. The main job of this layer of fur is to isolate the body. Such means making sure that as little cold air as possible reaches the body from the outside. As well as little heat as possible from inside the body to the outside. If it is unusually cold, the undercoat’s hairs can be set up by tiny muscles in the skin. Such provides additional insulation, as small air cushions form between the raised hair, keeping the cold outside air away from the body. This effect is the same as that which gives us humans goose bumps when we are out. However, since we have so little hair on our bodies, it is mostly ineffective on us.
The long hair of the top layer of winter fur has an entirely different purpose. While the undercoat acts as protection against the cold, the leading hair keeps moisture out. The hair is surrounded by a thick layer of fat, which means that a horses in rain are not affected, the moisture has almost no chance of penetrating through to the skin. Such is extremely important. Since the undercoat is thick but does not repel moisture, it quickly soaks up water and comes into contact with moisture. Once it’s wet, it dries up very slowly. Besides, the moisture penetrates quickly to the skin, which makes it very cold. For this not to happen, the top hair is not only extremely water-repellent in itself. If you watch your horse once in the rain, you will see that the water is directed past the body. It flows down the rump, gluteal muscles, neck, shoulders and the nose. How well the insulation of the winter coat works can be seen particularly well in snow.
For a horse in snow with a good winter coat, the snow remains on the skin in heavy snowfall without thawing from the body heat. Such is also suitable for the insulation, as the snow itself, through the air cushions it contains, forms an additional layer of insulation. Of course, the winter coat is not equally well developed in all horses and horse breeds. An Icelander and a Shetty, which come from colder regions, initially needed much more and denser winter fur than, for example, Arabs or Iberian horses. Nevertheless, even these breeds can develop sufficient winter fur for our climate. A horse’s coat formation can, over time, adapt to the environment to which the horse is exposed. However, this takes a few years and does not work from one winter to the next. However, the horses’ coat is adapted to the different weather conditions, a shelter under which the horses can protect themselves from extreme weather, be it heat, rain, snow, storm or hail, should, of course, always be provided.
Winter fur today – how blankets and stables affect thermoregulation.
Apart from the lack of exercise, the lack of social life, and other basic needs that have not been met, warm stables destroy horses’ thermal regulation in winter. Just like shearing and covering, which I am neither a fan of either individually or in combination. Of course, there are exceptions. Before such horses freeze, they should, of course, be covered up or, if necessary, temporarily taken to a stable. In healthy horses, however, the winter coat is sufficient protection in almost all weather conditions. A horse’s thermoregulation can only function properly if it is used regularly and thus stimulated. Such is not the case in stables and under blankets. Here the horse’s body is kept unnaturally warm for the corresponding seasons. That means that the thermoregulation is reduced. But if the horse comes out into the cold or the blanket is removed, the body cannot adapt quickly enough to the changed conditions – the horse freezes.
In addition to this problem, covered horses have other difficulties: Like that of us, humans, a horse’s body cannot heat or cool individual body parts. If one of the two is necessary, this always affects the entire horse’s body. If a horse wears a blanket, it only covers part of the body. At least the legs and the head, and usually the neck as well, are not covered. The lack of control over the thermoregulation now means that either the uncovered body parts freeze or the body’s covered area becomes too warm. Besides, blankets that lie on the fur prevent the undercoat’s hair from straightening up, as described above. If, for example, a light, thin blanket is not warm enough, the horse has no chance to protect itself from the cold through its body’s mechanisms. I think it is clear that the shearing destroys the winter coat’s function and thus massively disrupts the thermal regulation. Where there are no top hair and undercoat, they can no longer fulfill their purpose. However, ceilings cannot adequately compensate for this function and, as explained above, can only pay for further negative consequences.