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Horses need choices, too

Horses have been surviving Colorado winters since the conquistadors arrived on horseback in the early 1600s. However, that doesn’t mean that horses couldn’t use a bit of shelter.Colorado law classifies horses as livestock, and Colorado law does not require owners to provide shelter for them, said Hilary Wood, founder of Front Range Equine Rescue in Larkspur, Colo.But horses do seek shelter, given the opportunity, even if it’s just a grove of trees.”They don’t want to be out there in the bitter cold, fighting wind, with hail pounding on them, or in pouring rain, getting soaked to the bone,” Wood said. “And, of course, in a blizzard, when you’re talking about really dangerous catastrophic situations, they can get hypothermia.”Black Forest resident Ruth Ann Steele recalled the time her neighbor Ralph Evans (no longer living) nearly lost a mare during a severe blizzard in the 1980s that lasted for days.During the blizzard, Steele said Evans’ horse went down to Kiowa Creek and backed up against a bank. He told Steele when he finally got to her, the snow had covered her completely and he was afraid she had smothered, but she was breathing through a hole in the snow.”She couldn’t get out on her own, so he got her head out, and then pulled her out with a tractor,” Steele said. “He said he was afraid he’d break her neck, but she needed to get out of there, and she survived it.””Can you imagine the terror of that animal?” Wood said upon hearing Steele’s story.”Horses are very claustrophobic.” Their fear of predators like mountain lions or bears inhibits them from seeking shelter in enclosed spaces such as caves.Had the mare not been able to keep the hole in the snow open, it would have suffocated. “They can’t breathe when icicles form around their noses, cutting off air supply,” Wood said.Bruce Connally, a veterinarian with the Equine Field Service group at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, Colo., said horses often choose to stay out in the open because the horse is a flight animal and they want to be able to see if a predator is sneaking up on them.In winter, the Front Range combination of low temperatures and high winds yields a wind chill factor effect, which is hard to estimate, on horses in open areas, Connally said. “So, having a choice to get out of the wind is really important,” he added.Some sort of windbreak is ideal. Connally suggested some kind of structure 6 or 7 feet high – and it doesn’t need a roof. He said his horses prefer a windbreak with no roof to his open-faced shed.At the other end of the spectrum, Connally said, “Locking a horse in a barn is probably as bad as giving no protection, because then we get into problems with pneumonia.” He said heated barns pose an even bigger risk for respiratory problems.A good, dry hair coat provides insulation, but some horses, such as thoroughbreds, do not grow a coat like other breeds. And, within the realm of quarter horses, Connally said there is a “huge variation” in the animal’s ability to grow a coat of hair.Also, there’s body condition.Having a layer of fat under the skin is the horse’s second line of defense against the cold, said Patricia Miller of Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue in Ramah, Colo.”Thin horses require more feed to keep their bodies warm. Ideally, horses should be more fleshy at the start of winter,” Miller said. “Even when a horse has shelter, extreme cold will cause shivering and weight loss.”At minimum, Miller recommended making grass hay available during blizzards and the coldest temperatures, especially when it’s windy.Digestion of hay results in the release of more heat from the gut and is much more efficient than low-fiber grains, such as corn and barley, she said.”The typical 1,000-pound horse eats about 20 pounds of hay per day in ideal weather conditions,” Miller said. “When a horse without shelter encounters both wind and wet snow at 32 degrees, the animal must consume an additional 10 to 14 pounds of hay, which can be impossible for many horses.”Putting a blanket on the horse can also help keep it warm … knowing how to blanket is crucial and having a heavy enough blanket for the conditions is imperative.”Miller and Connally said that a horse should never be blanketed if it’s wet.”Beware of putting a blanket on during the day,” Connally said. “If they sweat underneath it, they get wet and they lose the insulation value of their hair. You’ve got to get that blanket off periodically so they don’t just stay damp under there.”Got a grumpy horse? A windy day could be the reason.”I see horses that have been out in the wind for several days, and they just act grumpy. I swear the wind gives them a headache or makes them as unhappy as it does people,” Connally said. “They’ve linked wind with suicide in humans, and I think chronic constant wind just makes some horses as grumpy as can be. They just get sick of it, so there’s a psychological reason to get them out of the wind.”

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