Can my horse get frostbite?
The end. Just kidding - you know I like to give you all of the info. So what is frostbite? And why is it horrible in some cases? Well, a tiny tiny cell in your horse becomes so bitterly cold that ice begins to develop inside it, and this causes expansion and rupture of the cell. Imagine this in a whole region of cells, like your fingers or your horse’s ear. These ruptured cells are now dead, which causes the area to have decreased blood flow and swelling and a whole mess of dead tissue. *** Important note here - this tissue will NOT grow back *** Major problems follow as the dead tissue can leak toxins into your horse and cause gangrene and massive infection, famous for being gross and black and generally dangerous.
This is a very ill advised method of keeping your horse warm.
But your horse can stand all day and all night in snow and be fine. YES! This is true, with the rare exception of some unlucky horses. The hoof capsule is a magical thing that protects the hoof’s internal structures from the cold. Additionally, the horse can shunt blood back and forth from his body down his legs and into the hooves.
Horses are typically susceptible to frostbite on their ears and their penises. This is usually seen when a horse is sedated with certain types of drugs that relax the muscles that hold the penis in. Then, the exposure sets in and you can only imagine….
A horse is at most risk in extreme cold, especially when there is no relief from the wind, or your horse is damp or wet. A horse that is already compromised by being a hard keeper, or a horse without enough forage, or a horse with some medical issue going on is also at risk. Some toxins found in plants and rancid feeds can cause vasoconstriction, which increases risk.
Check out this twist - a horse that is brought into a sealed up and toasty warm barn can also be at risk. A sealed up barn restricts the extremely important ventilation that rids the barn of humid air and ammonia from urine. So you have a wooly horse inside a sweatbox, he will start to sweat and then get cold and damp - the perfect recipe for frostbite. I’m not saying you should never ever bring your horse in - I’m only saying be smart about it and keep the air flowing and make sure your horse isn’t too warm or damp.
Daily inspections! All over your horse.
So what does frostbite look like on a horse?
Well - at first you will see the area become pale. Yes this is wicked difficult if your horse has a winter coat. Then the area will swell, and perhaps become really red. Then the area turns black, shrivels up, and falls off. One professional medical article that I read actually used the words beef jerky to describe this.
This is typically a non issue for the ears if the tip falls off, it’s a huge issue for penises and legs. Hence - another reason to groom and inspect your horse every single day. The damaged tissue won’t grow back. The damage can be superficial or go through all of the layers of tissue to the bone. No more muscle, no more tendon, no more ligaments.
What do you do?
- Call your horse’s Veterinarian. Pronto. Super fast. Don’t hesitate. Your horse's Vet can give you the deets on what to do before they arrive.
- Do NOT rub the area.
- Do NOT use a hair dryer to warm the area.
Remember that frostbite is rare in horses - but keep your eyes peeled anyway! Happy wintering!