Winter is Coming! Horse Care Part II

By Chris Bates Osteopath (DO), Equine Therapist, and Lecturer at London College of Animal Osteopathy


We are back again for more winter horse care advice. So, put those thermals on and grab your hot drink, it’s time to read.

Is my horse cold?

It is a common sight to see people touching their horse’s ears and legs when checking to see how warm they are. The problem is that it can be very misleading as to how comfortable your horse really is.

Horses are very good at regulating their body temperature. They have an excellent range of methods to regulate especially when they are not clipped or rugged. Horses can feel really quite comfortable down as far as 5 degrees (Celsius) if they have a full winter coat and are not rugged.

Below this temperature, they can use internal and external methods to keep warm. Horses can alter the blood flow to their extremities and places where heat is lost easily, like their ears.

The conservation of blood to the internal organs helps to keep digestion functioning properly and avoids cold weather causing colic. This is why touching legs and ears is not a good indicator of a horse’s body temperature.

The horse has a large part of the digestive system called the Cecum. This contains billions of bacteria and protozoa that enable the horse to digest the cellulose and the fiber of their diet.

This process of fermentation and digestion generates heat and is an important way for horses to regulate their temperature.

The microorganisms that perform this part of digestion require a specific pH balance to survive. We can help to ensure the right pH environment for these beneficial bugs.

One way is to avoid feeding excessive starch as this leads to an acidic environment in the gut. Grain feeds should be little and often rather than large meals less often. Ample access to forage such as hay is imperative to gut health.

The death of gut microbiome organisms causes the release of endotoxin that can cause colic and laminitis, so it’s important to watch out for signs of these conditions when changing feeding regimes with the season.

Remember that you’re not feeling the cold the way your horse does. We are rather naked animals, hence all the layers of clothing. Horses, on the other hand, are very well protected by their coat.

Piloerector muscles along the hair follicles can lift the horse’s coat away from the skin, trapping air underneath and allowing that air to heat up. This forms a layer of warmth that most rug designers can only dream of replicating.

When we rug our horses, we essentially press these hairs back down, and so the insulation is all down to the rug (it had better be a good rug).

The horse’s coat is even equipped with different length hairs, some that are finer and insulating, and some that lay longer to help moisture and rain to run off the body, keeping the skin dry and warm.

So, a better indicator of how warm your horse feels is to run your hand deep under the coat toward the skin around the vital organs of the trunk. However, this still isn’t an ideal measure.

Shivering is completely normal behavior if it’s very cold, but if you see excessive shivering consistently then you need to look at how to help your horse stay warm. Loss of weight is an obvious and more urgent indicator of feeling the cold. Horses will need to dive into those fat stores to stay warm if they are not getting adequate feed or shelter.

If your horse is stabled part-time then you might notice your horse standing at the field gates. This is a clear sign that they want in.

Stabling is obviously more sheltered and drier. It gives the opportunity to monitor feeding more accurately but remember that they won’t be able to move around as much and movement is one-way horses generate body heat.

If your horse is spending hours standing at the gate, though, they are not eating and risk colic or weight loss. Muddy gateways also increase the risk of skin irritations like mud fever and hoof damage like thrush.

Skin issues

When the weather is colder and wetter, the skin becomes more prone to irritations and infections. A very common condition is mud fever.

This is a bacterial infection caused by the bacteria getting into the often chapped and damp weakened skin around fetlocks and pasterns.

If a horse has mites, then this can increase the chances of mud fever as the skin can get broken, allowing the bacteria in. Treating for any sign of mites earlier in the season is useful. Signs include stamping, scratching, sensitivity to picking up feet, flaking skin, and redness.

Signs of mud fever vary. They include:

  • Broken skin
  • Crusty scabs
  • Pus and discharge
  • Swelling and heat
  • Sometimes lameness, if left untreated
  • Soreness when you try to touch the areaIt’s important to treat early as mud fever can lead to worse infection, such as cellulitis, which can be very dangerous.


    If there are very muddy areas in your grazing, you can try moving to drier ground. You can also try using straw to cover wet areas. There are also special mats you can install in field gateways to prevent mud.

    Instead of washing mud off when you bring your horse in, try leaving the mud to dry and then brushing it off. This means the horse’s skin doesn’t get any wetter.

    Use barrier creams to keep the mud away from the skin. These must only be applied to dry clean skin, however as otherwise, they actually help bacterial growth by trapping moisture against the skin.


  • Washing mud fever regularly with an antibacterial wash such as Hibiscrub and warm water (drying the legs afterwards).
  • Removing loose scabs.
  • Clipping leg hair away allows for more effective treatment and a drier environment. Especially for horses with thick feathers.
  • Antibacterial creams while the horse is off grazing (in stables).
  • Stronger medications can be acquired from your vet.


If your horse shows any signs of lameness, obvious swelling in the legs, fever, malaise, or hair loss, then contact your vet. Remember also that this condition can occur on the belly and other areas like the back, although this is often called rain scald.


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