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  • June 15, 2023 4 min read

    The Behavioural Changes of Horses in Winter: Insights into Equine Adaptation

    Winter brings about a myriad of changes in the environment, and horses, as highly adaptable animals, undergo several behavioral adjustments to cope with the challenges posed by this season. In this article, we will explore the fascinating world of equine behavior during winter. Understanding the behavioral changes horses undergo can help owners and caretakers provide optimal care and management strategies for their beloved equine companions. From modifications in feeding patterns and social dynamics to alterations in activity levels and shelter-seeking behavior, horses exhibit a range of adaptations that ensure their survival and well-being in cold weather conditions.

    Feeding Pattern Changes

    To survive through winter, horses have to start gaining extra weight through the summer months, and through their metabolic processes, they have a clever way of doing this! Horses can essentially ignore certain hormones such as leptin, that normally tell them to stop eating. But when late autumn rolls around, their sensitivity to these hormones increases again. It's like their bodies are getting ready for a time when food might be harder to find. They also dial down their thyroid-regulating hormones, which basically puts their bodies in an "energy conservation" mode. They become less active and their metabolic rate slows down. You can even see this in their heart rates, which go down during the darker days of the season.

    The digestive system of horses has also adapted to deal with the challenges of winter. When foraging becomes tough, their hindgut fermentation process kicks into gear, acting like a little central heating system for them. Since they eat less, the food takes longer to pass through their digestive tract, leading to more fermentation and heat production. It's a natural way for them to stay warm. During winter, they naturally lose some weight, which actually helps protect them from certain health issues that can arise when their body condition remains too high for too long.

    For our domesticated horses, we might actually find that their weight remains consistent throughout the year, due to the availability of food and an exercise regime being in place. But, if you find that your horse loses weight during winter, then the time to start feeding them more is in summer, taking advantage of their natural metabolic system. In this way, your horse has sufficient fat to last throughout winter, and weight loss will be minimal. 

    Changes to Activity Levels 

    As mentioned above, when a horse enters the winter season, their thyroid regulating hormones put the horse into winter hypometabolism for energy conservation. Due to this, you may find your horse a little more lethargic and less willing to be ridden. Further, several studies have suggested that horses are less active when it is cold and wet. Now, I know what you're thinking, "But, my horse tends to be friskier in the colder months!". The reason for this is most likely due to the fact of a routine change to their exercise. In winter, shorter and colder days can result in less riding. Couple this with more stall confinement and less daily turnout, may mean your horse is a little more fresh and spirited! 

    So what does this mean for our domesticated horses? The best thing for your horse is a routine of exercise and daily turnout. If turnout isn't possible or is limited, then your horse should receive as much exercise and mental stimulation as possible through hand walking or riding. It is also important for your horse to receive as much social interaction with other horses as possible, even if this means hand walking them to meet their friends! 

    Social Dynamics 

    Horses are highly social animals, and their social dynamics can undergo significant changes during winter. In the wild, horses form tight-knit groups for mutual protection against harsh weather conditions and predators. Similarly, domesticated horses may exhibit closer affiliations and stronger bonds during winter. They huddle together for warmth, utilizing each other's body heat to stay insulated. Dominance hierarchies within herds may also become more pronounced as horses compete for limited resources, including sheltered areas and preferred feeding spots. Owners should be mindful of these changes and provide adequate shelter and space to accommodate the social needs of their horses during this season.

    Shelter Seeking 

    Horses have a natural instinct to seek shelter during adverse weather conditions, and winter is no exception. In the wild, they would find protection from wind and snow in the form of trees, hills, or other natural features. Domesticated horses often rely on man-made shelters such as run-in sheds or stables to shield themselves from the elements. Providing adequate shelter is crucial for their well-being, as exposure to extreme cold, wind, and precipitation can lead to hypothermia and other health problems. Additionally, horses may exhibit more stall-related behaviors, such as weaving or cribbing, if they are confined for extended periods without access to turnout or social interaction. It is important to strike a balance between sheltered and outdoor time to address their physiological and psychological needs.

    The behavioral changes horses exhibit during winter highlight their remarkable adaptability to challenging weather conditions. By understanding and responding to these changes, horse owners can take measured steps to ensure our horses remain happy and healthy! 

    At Oakford Stockfeeds we are here to help! For product advice please visit us in store or online! 

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