Shelter from the Storm

“I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form/Come in, she said/I’ll give you shelter from the storm” —Bob Dylan

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A horse’s winter coat, like the one on this Icelandic horse, is designed for protection against the elements. But adaptation for the wild is challenged by modern management.
Credit: Thduke, Wikimedia Commons

The horse evolved to survive in cold, dry climates during the Ice Age.  But, Stephen Budiansky, in his wonderful book, The Nature of Horses, argues that if the horse had not been domesticated in the Eurasian steppes, (which occurred roughly 6,000 years ago), the species would have become extinct due to the lethal combination of a warming climate and human predation—a formula that doomed other Ice Age animals such as the mammoth, the aurochs, and even the ancient wild horse subspecies that roamed the Americas.1

Modern horses are still well-equipped to survive harsh weather, but some of our management practices keep horses from using their natural instincts and the protection biology gave them.  So we need to provide a substitute for what we have taken away.

Ancient wild horses and modern feral landrace breeds that live in truly wild conditions combine biology and instinct to survive the winter.  They can move freely in their environment to find shelter from wind and snow.  They grow a heavy winter coat with both long guard hairs and hair follicles can raise the coat almost upright in cold weather, creating additional insulation.  They build up a layer of fat during the summer and fall that adds another layer of protection against cold.  They can locate free-flowing water sources and use their hooves to paw through snow to uncover forage.  But animals in the wild are also vulnerable to extreme conditions and in general have shorter lives than they would in captivity.

Domesticated horses often lack access to the advantages nature provides.  Nearly all horses today are confined, whether to a box stall, a pen, or a small pasture.  They rely on humans to provide food and water.  Many do not have a winter hair coat due to being blanketed and clipped for show; others have their winter coats partially clipped for ease of drying sweat during cold-weather workouts.  In exchange for restricting a horse’s natural freedom, we need to consciously provide appropriate substitutes for what we take away from our horses.  With adequate food, water, shelter, and insulation from the elements, the end result is an animal that lives a long, healthy life.

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When we remove a horse from nature, we must help horses adjust to extreme weather conditions with extra shelter, nutrition and insulation. Photo credit: Brenda Wahler

Unfortunately, humans often make one of two assumptions about horse management; either that horses are more durable than they really are, or that they are as fragile as humans or housepets.  Both extremes present health risks to the horse.

The first group might claim that leaving a horse out in the pasture “as nature intended” means that the horse needs little care.  I’ve heard people argue that horses don’t need shelter, they can just turn their tail to the wind and “they’ll be fine.”  They often point to examples of horses that have access to a shelter and ignore it while snow piles up on their backs.

But these folks forget that a 10-acre open field on flat land without a single tree or gully to break the wind is not a “natural” habitat for a horse.  Wild horses can seek natural shelter in their environment; domesticated horses are stuck where we put them. Wind and wet can overwhelm a horse’s natural hair coat.  A healthy horse with a good winter coat may sometimes ignore a shelter, but the owner might not notice that the horse still uses a wall or an overhang as a windbreak.  While a winter coat insulates from snow, and even some moisture rolls off and doesn’t penetrate to the skin, wind-driven rain or snow can leave a horse shivering and under stress.  Studies have shown that horses seek shelter from a combination of wind and precipitation, especially if the wind speed is above 11 mph.2

Horse blankets are not a substitute for shelter. A good blanket can reduce wind chill and provide insulation, but an inadequate blanket can be worse than no blanket at all.  Blankets flatten a horse’s hair coat, limiting its insulating abilities; to be effective, the blanket must compensate for the natural insulation it takes away by having enough fill material.3 Further, a blanket only covers the core of the horse, and wind chill remains a factor, so offering shelter is still a better option.  A healthy horse with a full winter coat and a good shelter is often warmer than if the horse is kept with just a blanket and without any shelter.**

Even a windbreak helps.  Not long ago, I noticed some neighbor’s horses, who live in an open  field without shelter of any kind, doing something unusual.  The owner feeds well and blankets them in the worst weather, but I did a double-take one morning during a recent cold snap with a severe wind chill: I saw three alert horse heads—sticking up at ground level!   Somehow, the horses had deliberately found their way into a dried-out irrigation canal in their pasture. It was about 6–8 feet deep with very steep sides and they were happily peeking out of the top.  I am not sure how they got down there, but they clearly were seeking a windbreak.  Yes, they wanted shelter.

Some people go so far as to argue that they don’t have to provide water or food because horses can eat snow for moisture and paw through the snow to dried pasture grass. These beliefs can shorten a horse’s lifespan and, in extreme cases of neglect, lead to death.

Horses average 10 to 12 gallons of water consumption per day. Water must be clean, free choice and unfrozen.  For what it’s worth, I am a fan of the Nelson line of horse waterers; the one at my place is now about 9 or 10 years old. We also had a Ritchie that lasted for decades at a previous location, and a number of Montana farm equipment dealers do a good business with the Miraco line.*

The “horses can eat snow” argument is dangerously persuasive.  The reality is that, just like people in survival situations, horses forced to eat snow will not get enough water. They have to eat a great deal of snow to match their normal fluid intake, they may become dehydrated, and the energy needed to melt snow in their bodies increases their calorie requirements.4  The consequences can include impaction colic, reduced appetite and weight loss.5 Although a study in Norway in 2005 found that horses kept without water for nine days did not appear stressed from having to eat snow, the researchers also noted that it was a short period of time and that other factors may have delayed the onset of signs of dehydration.  A 1973 study in Alaska  found that horses who were cut off from any care at all were able to adapt over time to utilizing snow for moisture. The researchers concluded that horses have “remarkable stamina.” But again, the incident was time-limited to a single winter.  When you talk to the old-timers, the most candid will admit that they expected old ranch horses that “wintered out” to last until about age 15 or so.  They’ll say, “after that, they were all worn out.”

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This horse was assessed by a veterinarian in early spring as “thin,” a 3 on the Henneke Body Condition Scoring scale. This level of condition is not yet life-threatening, but can be hard on a horse’s longevity.
Photo credit: Brenda Wahler

Inadequate feed quickly leads to visible weight loss and little more needs to be said on that topic. But to the “horses can paw through snow” crowd, note that even domesticated horses confined to a large pasture do not have food-seeking freedom. In the wild, horses can travel dozens of miles to find sheltered places where grass remains under the snow.  And even then, most wild horses are pretty thin come spring and the old or sick often don’t make it.

Another common myth is that grain, particularly corn (that’s “maize” to my friends in the UK) creates “heat” in the winter.  That is incorrect.  Grain provides energy; we say it makes horses “hot”, but by that we mean temperament.  It is forage — hay— that provides warmth. Horses are “hindgut fermenters”; the roughage they eat is digested in the cecum, where the bacterial process that breaks down cellulose also generates heat.  When hay alone, even offered free-choice, is inadequate to keep weight on a horse, the next step is not feeding more energy in the form of grain, but to add fat or forage-based calories with more concentrated feeds such as beet pulp, stabilized flaxseed, or rice bran.  Most “senior” feeds, such as those made by Triple CrownPurina and Nutrena, contain these ingredients (along with other goodies) and can add the necessary calories and nutrition in a highly digestible form. These manufacturers all also sell rice bran or flaxseed-based concentrates of various sorts.*

Thus, winter feeing programs start with good forage.  The colder it gets, the more hay you feed.  Grain intake does not need to be increased in cold weather, and it can even give the horse too much excess energy.  But horses with weight issues benefit from concentrates that provide fat rather than starch or excess protein.

The other extreme are the folks who think horses need to be kept in hothouse conditions.  They put on a blanket when it is 50ºF, seal up the barn until humidity drips from the roof, and feed “hot” grains until the horse is kicking the walls down.  Remember: the horse evolved during the Ice Age!  Now, clearly, if a horse has no winter coat because is clipped for show or shipped in from a warmer climate, blanketing may very well be needed.  But horses can develop respiratory problems from living in an enclosed area with poor ventilation, they do not need grain for “heat,” and in most cases, given a choice, they are happier and warmer with plenty of hay plus access to turnout for natural exercise.

My own experience with several decades of horse ownership during Montana winters is that horses seem happiest with access to shelter and turnout.  A simple 12 x 24 shed provides adequate shelter from the elements if properly built to block the prevailing winds. It is best to place a shelter well away from fences so the horses can stand on the back side for a windbreak should there be an unusual wind pattern.  Barns need ventilation to avoid humidity buildup, but even then, owners also need to be cognizant of wind direction; an open door in the wrong place can create an arctic vortex and uncomfortable horses.

Water, food and shelter are not optional for horses in severe weather.  The wild horse could roam for miles to find what was needed; our modern horses rely on us to provide for their needs today.

—Copyright 2016, Brenda Wahler

Please read disclaimer

*As of this writing, no one is paying me to promote or endorse any of these products; I am only expressing my own opinions based on personal experience.

**Obviously, a horse with a warm blanket and a shelter is quite cozy, and blanketing is appropriate for any horse stressed by sickness, injury or age.  But healthy horses need blankets less often than is popularly thought.

  1. Budiansky, Stephen.  (1997) The Nature of HorsesSimon and Schuster. ISBN 9780684827681, pp. 40-42.
  2. Hathaway, Marcia and Krishona Martinson, “Equine winter care.” University of Minnesota, Horse Extension.  Accessed December 16, 2016 at
    http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/care/equine-winter-care/
  3. Marteniuk, Judith, “Winter Dehydration in Horses.” My Horse University. Accessed December 16, 2016 at http://myhorseuniversity.com/resources/eTips/January_2011/Didyouknow
  4.  Chastine, M. Nanette. (October 9, 2009) “You Can Lead a Horse to Water…”, Horse Health. American Association of Equine Practitioners. Accessed December 16, 2016 at http://www.aaep.org/info/horse-health?publication=867
  5. Hammer, Carrie; Ellen Crawford, ed. (2008) “Keep Your Horse Warm This Winter” North Dakota State University Extension Service. Accessed December 16, 2016 at
    https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/news/newsreleases/2008/dec-24-2008/keep-your-horse-warm-this-winter
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