How can I tell if my horse is cold?
Oh, this is a tricky one. There is no definitive way to decide if your horse is cold. There are, however, things to measure and things to look for that can help you decide if you need to add a blanket (or take one off) or even call the Veterinarian. Horses can develop hypothermia, in which case your Veterinarian needs to be called right away. But before that, we are still wondering “is my horse cold”?!
He's not cold - but I certainly am in weather like this!
A few methods that I have heard over the years and why they are bunk:
-Check his ears! If his ears are cold, he is cold! Well, the problem with this is that it’s about as unscientific as you can get. Your hands may be bundled in mittens and just came out of a toasty car with the heat on high. Of course his ears will be cold! OR - you just finished scrubbing buckets, the barn is out of hot water, and you forgot your rubber gloves. Your fingers are now icicles. Of course his ears will be warm if you touch them with your icicles!
-Put your hands under the blanket! Same theory - it’s all relative. But, if there’s sweat under the blanket, you have some adjusting to do.
Photo by Katie Novotry
For some slightly more scientific ways to determine if your horse is cold:
-Is he running around? Horses will do this to generate body heat. But, they can’t do it all day and all night. Or, he may just be looney-bins and shenanigans are his jam.
-Is he a “hard keeper”? Many horses that struggle with keeping weight on, or actually lose weight in the winter, may just be cold at night. All calories that he eats are used, and then he needs to tap his reserves to stay warm. There is nothing wrong about helping him out with a blanket and some extra forage. I suggest regularly weighing your horse with a weight tape to determine if he’s losing weight. (There are loads of other reasons for your horse to be a hard keeper, too, so work with your Veterinarian for a complete health check up. Ideas here!)
-Is your horse wet to the skin? Unclipped horses that have been sweating will be wet to the skin. This can create skin issues and infections, and can lead to hypothermia (a body temperature that is low and unsafe). Cooling out of the sweaty hairy horse in winter is serious business and his health depends on it. More on that topic here.
Horses also become wet to the skin in rare, but serious, situations where they are trapped in mud or a bog. Another similar situation is when their blanket is not waterproof, they stand in the rain, and now they are soaked to the skin. If there is even the remotest chance that a blanket will be on a horse outside or exposed through a door or window to the elements, it better be waterproof.
Photo by Amy T
Now for more scientifically sound indications:
-Is your horse shivering? This is a very obvious and definitive sign that your horse is cold. At this point, your horse is spending a lot of energy moving muscles to stay warm. You need to take his vitals and call your Veterinarian for help if you find your horse shivering.
-What are your horse’s vitals? Remember TPR, Temperature, Pulse, and Respiration? These are indications of hypothermia as well. Having a thermometer and stethoscope on hand are inexpensive necessities that take minutes to use.
What you need to know about hypothermia:
Hypothermia starts to set in when your horse’s body temperature is as low as 98-99 degrees. From there, it can be mild, moderate, or severe. All instances warrant a call to your Veterinarian. When you take your horse’s vital signs, his temperature will be lower, his heart rate and respirations may also be affected. Hypothermia can lead to heart trouble, organ failure, and can be fatal. Your Veterinarian can advise you how to help him warm up as they travel to you. In some cases, warming up your horse from the outside with rubbing and blankets is not advised. In some cases, your Veterinarian will administer warmed fluids and monitor for organ damage. (This is also a case when you need to know what his normal body temperature is!)
Photo by Cindy Noyes
Ultimately you will need to do your best guessing to determine if your horse is cold. He’s acting wonky, he’s all jazzed up, etc. Couple that with his vital signs - especially his actually internal temperature and his current weight status (fatter then ever, the same as always, hard to keep weight on, getting skinny) over time and this gives you a place to start.
How does your horse tell you he is cold?