BOLD RULER, Preakness Stakes winner of 1957, and sire of Secretariat
Your “fresh” horse might be entertaining to watch and lively under saddle, but this burst of energy during cold and rainy weather could be a warning sign that she’s not getting enough activity.
When turned out on a brisk winter day, does your horse race around the paddock, bucking and kicking up her heels? Or after a spell of rainy weather, is she spirited on the trails and hard to stop? People often declare: “My horse is frisky because it’s cold out!” But how is a horse’s behavior really affected by the weather?
How Horses Stay Warm
When it’s cold, wet, and windy, conserving body heat can be a matter of life and death. Ancestral wild horses adapted to climates with frigid winters and limited food. Some domestic breeds are better suited for cold and wet conditions than others, but most healthy horses can maintain their normal body temperature of about 100°F over a broad range of outside temperatures. When the thermostat dips below 5-10°F—the lower limit of their “thermo-neutral zone”—horses need to adopt various strategies to prevent dangerous loss of body heat.
Lively running, bucking, and other fresh behavior burns calories and isn’t a strategy horses use to stay warm when it’s cold out. Instead, they conserve energy, huddle together, and seek shelter.1-2 During the summer horses tend to use shelters to protect against biting insects. During winter, they’re more likely to use them to prevent body heat loss when it’s rainy. But they don’t tend to use shelters for warmth when it’s cold and dry.2 Smaller horses and ponies are better suited for cold weather because they have less surface area that’s exposed to the elements. A dense winter coat and body fat also provide insulation from the cold; clipping and blanketing keep the horse’s hair short and clean but might interfere with the coat’s natural insulating properties.
Findings from several research studies suggest horses are actually less active when the weather is cold and wet. For example, compared to other times of the year, during harsh cold and rainy Norway winters, Icelandic horses spend less time running and playing but the same amount of time eating, walking, and sleeping.3 Wild Przewalski horses4 and Shetland ponies5 are also less active in winter. Interestingly, they are able to conserve energy by slowing the body’s metabolic processes—a condition called winter hypometabolism—which could be an adaptation to conditions of food shortage and harsh weather. With regular access to food and shelter during winter, most domestic horses have no difficulty maintaining normal body temperature even in locations where the thermostat regularly plunges to frigid levels.
Exercise and Socialization
Horses are often stabled more and exercised less during cold, wet winter months, and in many areas, show season peaks in the summer. Rather than serving as a restful break, winter time-off can create a significant change in routine, with a steep drop in physical activity, mental challenge, human attention, and socialization with other horses. Day-length is also shorter in winter, which could mean more time confined to a stall and less time for turn-out, training, and riding. This relatively impoverished winter lifestyle probably explains why some horses are fresh and more spirited at this time of year.
Your “fresh” horse might be entertaining to watch and lively under saddle, but this burst of energy during cold and rainy weather could be a warning sign that she’s not getting enough activity, in general. A winter routine should include daily opportunities for exercise and turnout. If all-day turnout isn’t possible, a few hours a day in an arena or pasture can help, especially if it includes time with other horses. When winter conditions limit or prevent training, substitute that time with more environmental and social enrichment. Spending “quality time” with your horse will help strengthen the human-horse relationship and could include trick training, which is fun and mentally engaging. Some horses will play alone with safe, rugged toys, especially if the toy also dispenses treats. A slow feeder is a healthy enrichment item that will give your horse something to do for hours; she will spend more time grazing and less time standing, which more closely resembles the natural activity of free-ranging horses.
1 Heleski, CR, and Murtazashvili, I. (2010) Daytime shelter-seeking behavior in domestic horses. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 5; 276-282
2 Mejdell, CM and Bøe, KE. (2005) Responses to climatic variables of horses housed outdoors under Nordic winter conditions. Canadian Journal of Animal Science 85; 301-308.
3 Jørgensen, GHM, AANensen, L, Mejdell, CM, and Bøe, KE. (2015). Preference for shelter and additional heat in horses exposed to Nordic winter conditions. Equine Veterinary Journal 48; 720-726.
4 Arnold, W, Ruf, T, and Kuntz, R. (2006). Seasonal adjustment of energy budget in a large wild mammal, the Przewalski horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) II. Energy expenditure. Journal of Experimental Biology 209; 4566-4573.
5 Brinkmann, L, Gerken, M., and Riek, A. (2011). Adaptation strategies to seasonal changes in environmental conditions of a domesticated horse breed, the Shetland pony (Equus ferus caballus). Journal of Experimental Biology 215; 1061-1066.
About the Author
Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.
More than 800 horses have been evacuated and an undetermined number have died as the wildfires sweeping California continue their relentless march southward.
Earlier this week, wildfires devastated more than 180,000 acres in Ventura, Los Angeles, and San Bernardo counties. On Thursday, the blazes moved into San Diego County where fire rapidly approached and swept through the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, in Bonsall. Caretakers were able to evacuate many horses ahead of the fire’s arrival, but others were turned loose to give them the best chance to avoid the flames when evacuations were no longer feasible. Social media and other published reports suggest that more than 30 horses, many Thoroughbred racehorses, at the training center died.
“We haven’t got a complete head count (of the dead) yet,” said Paul McClellan, DVM, of the San Dieguito Equine Group, in nearby San Marcos.
At the same time, fires threatened homes and boarding barns around the county. McClellan said horse owners and volunteers began evacuating horse from the San Diego County fire zones around 2 p.m., Thursday, “right in the middle of rush hour,”
Though rush hour traffic snarls and changing fire lines frustrated rescue activities, most trailers were able to get through to horses in need of transport.
“Vets in the area are working with police and fire authorities to triage animals (in the fire zone),” McClellan said. “Even though there were logistic issues, I can tell you for a fact, one of our vets got a police escort and one of our trailers got a police escort.”
Many evacuated horses were taken to the Del Mar Fairgrounds where volunteers are working around the clock to provide feed and water, while others work to identify the animals.
“We currently have about 850 horses here, and about 350 of them are from the San Luis Rey training center,” said Del Mar Fairgrounds Public Information Officer Annie Pierce. “Volunteers have been coming in all night. Twelve of them are veterinarians.”
Most of the horses at Del Mar are being treated for anxiety, Pierce said. Additionally, McClellan added, “horses are being treated for lacerations, burns, and cuts just from running into things or each other.”
Horses aren’t the only ones that sustained injuries. Several horsemen, grooms, and volunteers were taken to the hospital with burns (some serious), smoke inhalation, and other injuries.
In any case, Pierce expects the evacuated horses to remain at Del Mar for as many as 10 days.
“But we’re not going to throw anybody out if they have to stay here longer,” she said. “We’re going to do whatever it takes until the horses can go home or to new homes where they will be safe.
By early Friday CalFire estimated that 41,000 acres and 65 structures were involved in the Lilac Fire in San Diego County. When fire crews will be able to get some control over the blaze is uncertain.
What is certain is that the fire will impact the racing industry in California for years to come.
“In coming days we’re going to see horses treated for pneumonia and other lung issues, well as burns and, beyond that, the training center is gone and some people (in the industry) have lost everything,” McClellan said. “The (racing) industry is trying to pull itself together, but we’ve got a little bit of a crisis here.”
About the Author
Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny