Horse Advice-- How to Avoid Frostbite

If you live in an area where long, cold winters are a certainty, you need horse advice on a very specific topic: how to help your horse avoid frostbite.  Actually horses are more adept at dealing with the cold than humans the reason being that horses evolved in a temperate climate, while humans evolved in the tropics. You suffer from cold fingers, toes and ears, so shouldn't your horse also?  A horse can stand in deep snow all day long; our feet would freeze after a very short time.  The horse is able to do that because of a unique circulatory system whereby warm blood is only sent to the feet when needed, thus saving energy.

Horses have a neutral zone of between 20 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. That means in that range they are not expending energy to keep warm or to stay cool. Healthy horses are actually more comfortable in cold weather than warm weather.  They are easily able to endure temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero. Your horse prepares herself for the winter naturally. As the days cool off and grow shorter, she grows a thick winter coat. Her metabolism changes so she stores more fat. Together the two provide an excellent insulation against the cold.

If a healthy horse does get frostbite, it is very difficult to see any clinical signs beforehand. The tips of the ears may become very pale first, but usually, when frostbitten, the turn dark, shrivel up and fall off. This does no harm to the horse.

Those horses that are at risk of frostbite are newborn horses not born in the spring or summer (as Mother Nature intended). Young foals cannot develop a thicker coat and fat layer. Older horses sometimes also can't develop the extra insulation.  A horse that has lost a lot of weight recently is at risk, as are horses that are lame or develop a heart condition. A horse that was living in the south and only recently moved to a colder climate could also develop frostbite. These horses need to be watched and covered with a blanket when necessary.
Signs that a horse is in need of attention are snow melting off the horse's back (not enough insulation), frequent shivering and the inability to stop shivering, tail clamped tightly against her body, and constant pacing back and forth.  To treat, the horse should be thawed with warm water. Anti-inflammatory medications may be given.

Blankets are not necessary to protect a healthy horse. During the winter months the horse should be kept dry. Wet hair gets matted and loses its insulation ability. She should be well fed and have lots of fresh water. Make sure the feed stays dry too so that mold doesn't grow. And the horse needs to be protected from the wind. Barns that are wrapped in plastic become too airtight and allow mold to grow, which might develop into a respiratory infection.  Metal barns may develop condensation and moisture problems. Barns that provide shelter from the wind, but have ventilation are the best.