Protecting a Horse from the Cold.
The recent spell of bad weather in the UK has made me think again about the husbandry of my horse DiDi I think it is fairly well accepted that for a human the fastest way to a horse’s ‘heart’ is through its stomach and I believe that the owner who is not actually feeding his horse on a daily basis loses an essential point of contact with the creature. However the horse in inclement weather is also very concerned about gaining shelter be it from wet or cold. I have no doubt that my horse looks to me to keep her comfortable even though in theory she is of hardy breeding. She expects to be fed routinely and no doubt she expects her other needs in life to be catered for as well.
If the horse lives permanently out on good grass then the need by the horse for additional food is somewhat less. So much depends upon the nature of the grass in the paddock and the breed of the horse. In Britain we have some very hardy ponies who seem to thrive so long as they have access to something green or to hay. In Britain throughout the year, ponies live out completely untended on the moors and other harsh environments. For example Welsh Section Cs, are wild hardy types which can make good riding ponies even if the training of such independent creatures calls for significant expertise on the part of the handler.
When the breed society says that Irish horses such as my DiDi are hardy creatures, fit to be left out all the year without being molly coddled then one must accept that the breeders believe what they are saying. However it is not the breeder who is going to find a sporting use for the horse rather it is the owner. The privately owned horse will hopefully be exercised all the year round - weather permitting. In the warm months of the year this policy presents no problem. Whilst Irish horses do grow a thick coat for the winter, they moult in the Spring. Over the warm months the active horse may well get hot and it might sweat but with a quick wipe down to remove the foam and the salt the horse can be left to dry off. Maybe the caring owner might slip on a sweat rug to prevent a “chill” but probably all that is necessary is to keep the horse out of any wind. The winter however presents a very different scenario.
The winter coat of my Irish horse can be very thick with an outer and under layer of fur. The horse exudes naturally an oil which helps to ‘water proof’ the woolly coat and the hairs seem to stand proud in the cold weather. Simply grooming this furry beast to get it clean can be quite a chore. However after minimal exercise the horse will readily sweat up at the trot or even during an active walk up a steep hill. A woolly coated horse is simply unsuitable for active exercise. So the way around this problem has been to clip the horse’s winter coat, sometimes with a full clip - on other occasions with a partial trace clip under the neck and belly. However a horse which has been clipped needs the protection of a rug when the temperature drops below plus 5 degC or when it is raining hard. Once the horse has been clipped then the caring owner cannot with good conscience leave the animal out in cold weather - especially when there is wind chill. What Nature provided as a defence against the cold, we humans took away to suit our own purposes. The horse undoubtedly feels the cold and the human can readily tell if a horse is actually cold by feeling the horse’s ears and between its hind quarters. A cold horse will shiver. Often a superficial check is all that is necessary since a horse wanting to come back into the warmth of its stable will stand by the gate of the field waiting for its owner to appear. Likewise any horse sodden by rain has less resistance to a cold wind than a dry horse. So if one lives on a wet windy island like Britain then the chances are that any horse in one’s care is going to appreciate a rug at some time of the year. A common dilemma for the owner is to select the weight of the rug to match the level of cold.
In Britain then is an expression : “roughed off” which means to deliberately let the horse run free in a carefully selected area for the winter with or without the provision of additional fodder. My old horse Joe, a hardy cob, was regularly left out over the winter months and to cope with the elements he grew a thick woolly coat which was never interfered with by me especially by grooming him thoroughly. However to consider riding him in such an unkempt state at any pace above a very slow walk was unthinkable.
Some breeds of horse, particularly the warm bloods, do not by nature grow a thick coat. Such horses will quickly lose condition in cold weather unless protected. A horse needs nutrition to keep warm in the cold or the wet and if it doesn’t acquire suitable food then it will draw down on its body fat and quickly lose weight. If you want a fit horse, then don’t let it starve. You also don’t want it to get colic.
If one observes horses left out in very cold weather, then one will see them huddled together up in a corner of the field. They will have found a tree or a hedge or a bank under which to shelter from the wind. What they will also seek is some grazing and they will keep their eye on a patch of grass which they know to be a possible source of nourishment. They will nibble at mosses and ferns. They will eat the plants and weeds to be found in the hedges. They will even seek out any young growth on trees and bushes. On pastures kept for horses regularly, pickings might be sparse and it might be necessary for the owner to provide additional fodder - say hay, alfalfa or even some types of straw. In such instances what the horse really seeks is the kindly attention of its owner and with DiDi that is very obvious. If she is not already up by the gate, then she comes galloping up as soon as she sees me.
The owner should recognise that some habitats either through climate or the nature of the soil can’t support horses all the year round. As for myself, I live on an island which is very benign to horses. However arid land and other regions prone to very cold seasons when the temperature will fall below freezing are unsuitable for the natural husbandry of horses all the year round. Horses might be imported into that region but it would not be a natural habitat for them. Those horses will need human help to survive in good condition through the full year.
Reverting back to DiDi, well she is of a suitable breeding for living in the local environment and she meets my needs in most respects. Left alone in cold weather then she would grow a fairly thick coat to keep herself warm but she is regularly put through her paces by me so I must cater for her getting sweaty. It is necessary for her to be trace clipped in the late Autumn. She has a stable which gives her protection from the wind and rain but it is not heated. She lives in at night and goes out for most of the daylight hours so long as the ground is not too slippery, Through necessity she possesses several coats each with different properties. A couple of rugs are for keeping her warm at night in the stable; a couple keep her from getting wet out in the paddock, a couple keep her both dry and warm. Two rugs merely soak up sweat after exercise. One bright yellow rug warns motorists of her presence out on the lanes. What is noticeable is that she never resists being “dressed”.
Whatever questions there are about a horse’s level of intelligence, it is well known that it will seek out food and security. My firm belief is that the horse also looks for shelter from the elements. If the owner/handler regularly supplies food, and, dare I say: ‘treats’ to the horse then the horse will look for food or treats. Without doubt a horse constantly seeks security and relief from fear from its rider. If the horse under stress seeks shelter, and the owner provides it, then surely it is reasonable to believe that the horse will always seek shelter by the intervention of its owner.
If one does live in a warm climate, then perhaps rugs are not necessary. Otherwise I firmly believe they are necessary to keep the horse warm, dry and clean. In addition, the use of them might well bring the horse closer to its rider. Certainly my DiDi would not appreciate my giving her rugs away.