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How Cold Is Too Cold for Horses?

Learn how low temps affect your horse’s comfort and what you can do to ensure he stays warm this winter.
A chestnut horse with a thick winter coat stands in a snowy field
Getty Images

Is your horse ready to brave winter weather? As a new horse owner, you might be wondering what temperature is too cold for your horse and whether he needs a little extra help to stay warm this season. While horses are hardy animals, when temperatures drop below freezing you should take steps to ensure they don’t get too cold. In this article, we’ll give you the knowledge to keep your horse comfortable regardless of what Mother Nature throws his way.

How Horses Stay Warm

Horses’ bodies have evolved over millennia to adapt to their environments. As such, they have a few natural tools at their disposal to keep themselves warm. First, they have thick winter hair coats and a layer of fat under their skin. Each individual hair is designed to trap warm air close to the skin, creating an insulating effect. Second, as hindgut fermenters, horses’ digestive systems help generate heat. As they process forage, their gut produces heat that transfers throughout their body. Finally, horses can conserve heat by altering their circulation. When the temperature drops, blood vessels in their extremities constrict, directing blood flow to their vital organs and conserving heat. With these natural adaptations, horses can thrive in cold environments.

A few factors, however, can affect this natural process, including:

  • Age: Older horses might have a harder time regulating their body temperature in extreme cold.
  • Body Condition: Horses that are underweight might have a harder time staying warm.
  • Health: Illness or injury can also affect a horse’s ability to stay warm.

Keep a close eye on these horses in winter, and consider taking steps to help them stay warm.

What Temperatures Can Horses Tolerate?

A bay and a chestnut horse stand out in the snow with thick winter coats
Your horse’s body is uniquely designed to tolerate extreme weather. | Getty Images

Equipped with thick winter coats and free access to hay, horses can remain comfortable at temperatures down to 18 degrees F—this is their lower critical temperature, meaning at this point they need help staying warm. That being said, horses can remain comfortable even when temperatures drop to 0 F, so long as there’s no wind or moisture. With a shelter to protect them from the elements, horses can withstand temps as low as -40 F.

How To Monitor Your Horse’s Temperature

As the winter chill sets in, keep an eye on your horse’s body temperature by monitoring it regularly. Because horses’ temperatures can fluctuate with the weather, it’s important to establish a baseline temperature (using a rectal thermometer) for your horse during the winter. Additionally, keep an outdoor thermometer near your horse’s stall or paddock to check the ambient temperature and adjust management strategies accordingly. By monitoring your horse’s body temperature in the colder months, you’ll be able to catch any potential issues quickly.

Signs Your Horse Might Be Too Cold

It’s important to monitor your horse during cold weather to ensure he’s staying warm and healthy. Some signs your horse might be too cold include:

  • Shivering.
  • A fluffed-up coat.
  • Decreased activity or energy levels.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Ears and extremities becoming cold to the touch.

These can all be signs of hypothermia, which occurs when body temperatures drop below a normal range. The condition can be caused by cold weather or prolonged exposure to wet conditions. It is important to act quickly—by providing shelter and blankets—if you suspect hypothermia in your horse, as it can become life-threatening.

Ways to Help Your Horse Stay Warm

two gray horses wearing blue blankets stand near a fenceline in the snow
Blankets and shelter can help your horse stay warm when temperatures plummet. | Getty Images

You can take several steps to help your horse stay warm and protected during cold weather:

  • Provide adequate shelter: A well-insulated shelter, such as a barn or three-sided run-in shed, can provide a warm and dry place for your horse to take refuge from cold, moisture, and wind.
  • Blankets: Depending on the temperature and your horse’s hair coat, a blanket can help provide additional warmth and protection from the elements.
  • Proper nutrition: Horses require extra energy in the form of calories during winter to maintain their body temperature. Make sure yours has access to plenty of good-quality forage.
  • Regular exercise: Keeping your horse moving can help generate heat and keep his muscles warm. Do so by providing him with as much turnout as possible given the conditions.
  • Water: It’s important to check water sources regularly and break up ice to ensure your horse has access to fresh, unfrozen water at all times. You might even want to invest in a heated water bucket.

Take-Home Message

In general, most healthy horses can tolerate temperatures as low as 0 F for short periods. However, it’s important to monitor your horse closely and take action if you notice any signs he might be too cold. By understanding your horse’s physiology, keeping an eye on the weather, and taking steps to help him stay warm, you can ensure your horse remains healthy all winter.

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