Do horses get cold feet?

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Horse standing in snow

Horses don’t get cold feet when standing in snow under very cold conditions because they do not have muscle mass below the knee or hock. The lower leg is mostly made up of bone and tendon which is much better suited to withstanding cold conditions. They are not energy-requiring tissues, which is in comparison to the rest of the body so says Pamela Wilkins, a professor of equine internal medicine and emergency-critical care at the University of Illinois and whose qualifications are as follows: DVM, MS, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVECC.

Horse standing in snow

Horse standing in snow. Photo: Twitter feed and in the public domain (assessed).

The horse is a hardy animal well designed to cope with cold weather. They handle cold weather much better than humans. They have several adaptations to cold weather. As the winter approaches horses grow a new, longer hair coat. The individual hair strands stand on end trapping air pockets which act like a layer of insulation. It’s rather like wearing a down-filled coat.

It does take a while, however, for a horse who is used to living in warm weather to adapt to cold conditions. Bruce Connally DVM, a veterinarian with a mobile practice in Colorado, said that horses brought from Texas to Wyoming struggled during the first winter because their bodies were not programmed to grow a winter coat. However, when the following winter arrived they were able to adapt and grow hair.

A full mane and tail helps to keep them warm. The tail helps to keep their backsides and underparts warm. The mane can help protect a horse’s head when it is lowered. The skin produces oils which are deposited on the hair strands which shed moisture.

When snow lands on a horse it does not melt because of the insulating layer of air described above which means that the outer parts of the hair strands are almost as cold as the ambient temperature.

If the snow is very wet it can penetrate this insulating layer and the skin can become wet and cold. Notwithstanding their hardiness, horses should have shelter to escape harsh, rainy and snowy conditions. A waterproof blanket and tree cover can help.

Newborn foals need protection from the elements. They have short hair and little body fat for insulation. Therefore they are at a high risk of becoming severely chilled or frostbitten.


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