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How cold is too cold for your horse?

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With the recent blast of arctic cold, many people ask "how cold is too cold for your horse?"

The answer depends a little on how your horse is being sheltered from the elements and what you expect from your horse in this weather.

Horses can technically survive in temperatures of -55 C if they have a full hair coat and are well-conditioned. They need to have access to clean, fresh water at all times as well. This can be part of the difficulty for horse owners. Horses with limited hair coat or poorer body condition require blanketing and, in some cases, heated shelter to maintain comfort in the cold weather.

These basics are appropriate for pleasure horses but if you have a performance horse in training, some additional issues may need addressing.

For horses in active training or being conditioned over the winter months, it is important to consider the level of exercise that can be reasonably maintained. My general recommendation for athletic horses, is to limit workout time for horses when the temperature falls below -20 C.

The main reason for this is to minimize soft tissue injuries. The most common injuries are to the flexor tendons, suspensory ligaments and check ligaments in the legs. When the temperature drops, the limbs of the horse conserve energy and heat resources by limiting blood flow. With limited blood flow comes limited capacity for ensuring
adequate stretch of the fibres and inadequate blood to perfuse the tissues.

If the horses are to be worked in frigid temperatures, some precautions that can be applied are to ensure an adequate warm up period of at least 15 minutes of walking before beginning trotting or increased exercise. The goal should be to improve tendon blood flow prior to stressing the stretch of the tendons and ligaments. Another effective method of increasing the level of blood flow to the limb is to use limb wraps to help warm the areas.

Before considering any activity with your horse, make sure your horse is fit enough for the exercise and warmed up properly.

If it isn’t comfortable for you to ride, it probably isn’t comfortable for your horse to carry you.

Chris Bell is an equine veterinarian and surgical specialist who operates Elders Equine Veterinary Service, with clinics in Cartier and Winnipeg. See www.eldersequineclinic.com

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