Owners often fret about the question: “How cold can horses tolerate?” The answer may surprise you.
Most adult horses will be able to withstand freezing and even sub-zero temperatures if they are reasonably healthy, have a good thick coat and have no metabolic diseases.
What does matter is proper nutrition, water and being able to shelter from the rain.
The Lowest Temperature Tolerable For Horses
Horses are most comfortable between 18 degrees and 59 degrees Fahrenheit, per researchers at the University of Minnesota. However, if they have the right conditions and are in good shape, they have been known to tolerate temperatures that are much, much lower.
Let’s find out what it takes to properly care for your horse in the winter.
1. Know The Lower Critical Temperatures By Age
Foals have the least tolerance for cold temperatures. Lower critical temperatures (LTC) for them should be around 60 to 70 degrees F.
Young horses can stand significantly more cold weather, with LTCs between 10 to 15 degrees F.
Adult horses can withstand temperatures between 0 to 10 degrees F, sometimes lower. Horses of advanced age are more difficult to predict.
2. Physical Condition
To be able to withstand the cold (and follow the LTC guidelines mentioned above), the horse should be in good health, mature but not aged, not have any systematic metabolic issues and have a normally shaggy heavy winter coat.
The last one is important – if you have trimmed your horse down to a show-coat status, they will get colder and must be sheltered more frequently.
In addition, it needs proper nutrition, adequate water intake and the ability to shelter when needed.
3. Nutrition And Water Needs
During cold weather conditions, horses use various mechanisms to increase their body temperature. For example, they could be shivering, but this does not necessarily mean that they are about to fall ill from the cold.
Shivering is a way for horses to generate additional body heat to keep their temperature normal. On the other hand, shivering could signify the necessity to tweak their diet or environment.
4. Proper Nutrition Is Important
Horses use a la carte quantities of forage during cold weather to not only fill their bellies, but the microbial fermentation of good forage increases the animal’s body heat substantially – more so than a diet of normal grains.
Forage typically comprises of long-stem hay or pasture greens (e.g., grasses or legumes). It may be difficult to find them naturally during winter, so forage substitutes such as hay cubes, straw or beet pulp can be substituted.
The amount your horse typically consumes should be increased by 10-15% during winter given the work it performs to keep the animal warm. So if a horse typically consumes 12-16 lbs. of forage normally, plan on providing 12-17 lbs. during cold weather.
It also may be necessary to provide access to loose salt, since licking a salt block during extreme weather can be painful.
5. Hydration Is Critical
A daily intake of 10-12 gallons per day is natural for a horse. During winter, the forage and pasture loses most of its moisture content. If that hydration is not replaced, your horse will both eat less and have its feed get compacted in its stomach – giving rise to a number of ailments.
Remember that snow and ice are not substitutes for water. Lukewarm water is necessary for the horse to winter well.
6. Sheltering May Be Critical
Horses hate cold and rain much more than extremely cold but dry. As an analogy, a horse will do better at 10 degrees F and dry snow than it will in 35 degrees F and driving rain/sleet.
Depending on the age, physical condition and other attributes mentioned above, it is critical to provide shelter for your animal. That way, during high winds, freezing rains, sleet and storms, your horses can be comfortable.
Shelters with easy access through a single doorway will help keep your horses healthy even in very cold weather. Observations have shown that while horses may only spend 10-15% of their time indoors during dry, cold weather, the usage goes up to 60% and above during wet weather during the winter.
A Horses Winter Coat
In the fall, horses begin to shed their summer coats. As the weather changes, horses shed their summer coats and grow thick winter coats that keep them insulated during the winter.
These thick coats trap warm air against their skin, and some horse breeds have a double-layer coat that will help keep the wind out. It goes without saying that these horses have a higher tolerance for the cold.
Some horses, particularly ones more used to the indoors, will feel the cold more than others. The thicker their winter coat, the higher their capacity for retaining heat.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do Horses Get Cold?
Of course they do. Fortunately, they are hardy creatures and often fare well in the winter. Some horses have double-layered coats and are less affected by the cold.
Others, particularly indoor horses, will feel the cold more. Owners should know the signs of a cold horse and learn how to make them comfortable during winter.
What Are The Signs My Horse Is Too Cold?
The best way to tell if your horse is feeling cold is by observing its behavior.
They will usually exhibit clear signs that they are uncomfortable with the weather.
Let’s have a look at some of these signs, so you know what to look for.
- Shivering: all mammals shiver when they get too cold. There could be other reasons your horse shivers, but most likely, if the temperature is out of their comfort zone and they are shivering, they are not tolerating the cold well.
- Tucked down tail: clamping down their tail against their body is a sure sign of stress or nervousness in your horse. If he’s doing this in the winter, it might be a sign he’s too cold.
- Touch: even if your horse is wearing a blanket, there can be weather conditions that are simply too cold for him. If you suspect your horse is cold, even if he’s not exhibiting the above behavior, it’s best to check. Put your hand behind his withers, chest, or shoulders and see if he is cold to the touch. If he is cold to the touch, it’s probably time to find him some shelter or get him a blanket.
When Should I Use Horse Blankets And Neck Warmers?
As we saw, the horse’s own hair acts as a natural blanket for them. Most horse owners will use blankets and neck warmers on their horses because of their own beliefs, not because of their needs.
There are, however, situations when blanketing is appropriate:
- If there is no shelter during turnout time and the temperature is below 5° F.
- If the weather is wet with sleet, rain, or ice.
- If the horse is a weanling, young, or older.
- If the horse has had his winter coat clipped.
- If the horse has a poor Body Condition Score.
Can Horses Stay Outside In The Winter?
Yes, your horse can stay outside during the winter. They may even prefer it. But there are a few things to keep in mind.
These include making sure they have access to adequate shelter, watching their calorie intake, especially in temperatures below 18° F, and ensuring they have sufficient access to drinking water above 45° F.
Should I Clip My Horse In The Winter?
A horse that is regularly worked during the winter can sweat excessively in its winter coat. This makes it harder for them to regulate their temperature. Clipping your horse will reduce the sweating and allow you to help regulate the horse’s temperature during the winter.
Whether you decide to clip your horse or not depends mainly on how you use your horse during the winter months and whether they are stabled or turned out.
Suppose your horse is a heavy worker in the winter. In that case, you should likely consider clipping it before winter begins and every 4 or 5 weeks after until winter ends. If your horse is idle for much of the winter, clipping is often not necessary.
A clipped horse will need to be watched more closely for frostbite because more of their skin is exposed. You will need to be diligent in checking if they feel cold, especially in critical temperatures.
The Final Word
Horses can be sturdy creatures if they are healthy, and not too young or old. Some tweaks to the horse’s habitat, nutrition and care are needed during the winter months – so that they don’t face too many problems even if conditions get frigid.
While horses can die from the cold, a few simple steps will normally keep them healthy.
There are a few other do’s and don’ts, such as providing exercise and adequate cover if they seem to be losing body heat.
Most of the measures are common sense, though, provided the tips above are followed.