Windchill

For many of us, the weather is rather inclement at the moment. In many parts of Europe snowfall has given a very wintry vista and the wind has also started to get up. The combination of low temperatures and wind has given us a new addition to our vocabulary in the past thirty odd years – Windchill.
What is windchill? Very simply, it is the cooling effect of wind – we notice it on a summer’s day when, despite temperatures in the high 20s, the breeze makes for a slightly more amenable feeling. In the winter we notice it even more – it is the difference between a crisp, windless morning with the temperature around -5˚C and the equally crisp but windy morning with the temperature barely below zero. Despite its higher temperature, the latter is decidedly less pleasant, feeling as if the temperature is closer to -10˚C.
Which is in effect what we are feeling. The wind is drawing the heat off the skin giving the effect of a lower temperature than measured (in fact, air temperature is measured in a Stevenson Screen where the effects of sun and wind are minimized).
There are various tables for actually determining windchill – some don’t go above 4˚C because above that temperature, the dangers of windchill are, to all intents and purposes, nil, although it does not mean the effects aren’t felt. The purpose of this article is not to be able to calculate windchill – there are enough references to be found by Googling – rather to look at the effects in horses.
We have the tendency to look at our pets and make human considerations about their wellbeing. We raise food bowls, we provide soft beds with blankets/straw, we put coats on them, give them clean tapwater etc. And yet, they prefer to drink out of dirty puddles, eat from the ground, roll in the snow and sleep on the hard floor!
So, what about horses and windchill? Well, as far as I know, there has been no direct research into the subject. Nevertheless, it can be very easily concluded that the “feels like” temperatures we are given, cannot be applied to horses. Why not? Simply because the “feels like” temperatures are derived from windchill data and that is based upon temperature loss on exposed skin. And specifically, human skin. Although basically similar, a horse has a much thicker insulating skin than a human and then obviously a much denser coating of hair. The skin alone will make quite a difference to the “feels like” temperature – with the hair on top, the difference is vast.
So next time you think it is too cold for your horse, think again… It probably isn’t!

Back outside

Having been kept indoors the past few icy days – horses can’t walk on hard icy ground – the local horse-community is back outside and naturally well wrapped up in their jackets! After all, it is still cold.

It is always a wonder to me that so many “knowledgable” horse owners seem to think that their horses are different from others; how often do I hear the phrase “…but myhorse…” What makes your horse incapable of being like other horses?
The “comfort zone” for a horse, the temperature range wherein it used little or no extra energy to maintain its body temperature, is from -5˚C to +25˚C. This is applicable to alltypes of horse, be it Haflinger or full-blood Arab. In fact, the poor thin-skinned Arab is possibly even better off than the Haflinger – in the dessert the circadian temperature range is far greater than 30˚.

Take a look at this excellent and well researched article.

Oh dear…!

Having posted the photo yesterday of three horses well wrapped up against the warmth cold I thought no more of the article – until I was confronted by this sight this afternoon: Horse with jacket askew

Just what use this jacket is, I don’t know – it certainly doesn’t do what it is “intended” to do. But even more confusing is that, as we see in the next photo, this horse is accompanied by a second horse without a jacket. (The third horse, not shown in the photos, also had a jacket on – being three, again, I think they are the same horses as in the previous article.

Two horses, one without jacket, one with jacket askew

[linkpost lang=”nl_NL”]Dit artikel in het Nederlands[/linkpost]

What’s wrong here?

Horse with coatSo, what is wrong with these pictures? It seems a perfectly normal scene – horses grazing in a field, jackets on to protect against the cold.
To all intents and purposes, the horses are doing alright – but the temperature is nearly 10˚C. Why then, do these horses need jackets? They have a perfectly natural coat which does a far better job of keeping them warm and dry than these man-made items.

A horse can live in temperatures down to -40˚C – without need of a man-made jacket! Even “thin-skinned” arab horses are capable of withstanding very low temperatures – the desert is not always that warm at night.
Horses with coatsThe hair on a horse is a fantastic temperature regulator – and fully automatic, too. The air trapped in the layers of erect hairs functions as an insulator – one of the best there is; if it gets too warm, the hair flattens, reducing the air-layer to next to nothing; if it is still too warm, transpiration sets in and the hairs then take on their other role of capillary-transport, allowing the sweat to flow to the surface to be evaporated.

The problem we create when putting a jacket on our horse is that temperature regulation is effectively turned off – compare it with a fire without an on/off switch or thermostat in a living-room where the windows and doors are closed all the time. If our horse is cold, then the jacket stops him from being able to erect his hairs to create an insulating layer of air. If our horse is too warm and needs to sweat, then by pressing the hairs down flat, the jacket reduces the capillary-effect of the hairs, and any sweat that does get through, will only get into the lining of the jacket and will not evaporate allowing cooling.

I always wonder what the reasoning is for people, who seemingly know a lot about horses, to then do this…

[linkpost lang=”nl_NL”]Dit artikel in het Nederlands[/linkpost]

Transhumance

It’s the last week before Christmas and once again I am spending the week in the Pyrenees in the company of seventy-plus horses and a smattering of people. We are taking the horses from their summer grounds, some 1800 metres up in the Pyrenees to their winter grounds some 1400 metres lower in the Aude.
The horses are capable of surviving the temperatures of the mountains but the winter grounds afford them better access to food. They will have dry-grassland to feed off for the winter period but they will have no more shelter than nature herself provides. For four months they will be left to roam an area of more than 85 hectares.
Of course, “rough living” is only a part of the story: not one of the horses is shod. And yet they are quite capable of covering 150km in four days – with or without rider – with no detrimental effect on the hooves. The snow, ice, climbs and descents are all taken in their stride with little or no chance of injuring themselves. Last year we did a 10km trot downhill on snow and ice. This year promises to be as interesting – there is already a good layer of snow awaiting us on the other side of the Col de Puymorens (snow chains were obligatory this morning).
It should be a good week again.

Winter is here (on paper!)

So the winter has begun; well, according to the meteorological calendar, at least. Our weathermen mark the change of seasons on the first day of March, June, September and December – it makes it easier on the statistics than the infinitely variable 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd or 23rd of the month 😀

Our horses (were talking Northern hemisphere here) have long noticed the shortening days and the cooling off and have equipped themselves with all they need for the winter months – a thick coat. Of course, if you brought the winter blankets out early enough, then the winter coat may not be quite so thick, nevertheless, it is there. And to compensate, some people even go so far as to clip this wonderfully adequate coat so that our horse doesn’t sweat too much – and particularly not under that lovely winter blanket.

As you might guess, the idea of a winter blanket is not one much cherished by Sabots Libres: horses are designed with their own blanket – in fact, it’s a sort of All Weather Protection. The hairs lie in such a configuration as to insure good drainage of both rainwater and sweat. The oft heard cry of not putting your horse out to pasture (or into its stall) when it is still wet, is really a nonsense. Horses in the wild will exert themselves and then stand around, sweaty, in the wind, without a care in the world – and they don’t catch cold! And I dare you to try this one – put your horse out to pasture for 24 hours when there is a thick layer of snow on the ground and a cutting wind; make sure there is some shelter for the worst moments, but when you come back the next day, have a look where your horse has been in the past day (should be easy with the footprints in the snow) and the chances are that he has wandered around in the snow a bit and at some stage made a bed in it; chances are the shelter is unused.

And on the subject of cold – when we get to the final stages of hypothermia, we shiver (uncontrollably). A horse does not get that far: it shivers very early on not because it is getting too cold but to keep its temperature up. If it is not successful, then there is a whole barrage of tricks for keeping warm – not least of which, eating. But also by shutting off circulation to the legs, temporarily; closing down the surface capilary-structures for periods of time and simply by erecting the coat and thus trapping a layer of highly insulating air. This last solution is obviously seriously hampered by the use of a winter blanket and it is almost certain that a horse with winter blanket will be colder than one without.

Even if you are not (yet) convinced about blankets, now is a good time to seriously consider removing those horseshoes once and for all. Although the reports of doom are much overplayed (-23˚C could happen but not in the way nor with the certainty that the doommongers will have us believe), the chance of snow is still reasonably high. And snow combines badly with horseshoes.
Being metal (in most cases), the shoe will rapidly take on the temperature of its surroundings – the snow – and will become an ideal surface for ice to form. This ice then conglomerates to eventually become one large chunk of ice within the periphery of the shoe. As the horse continues to move over the snow, this chunk of ice grows even further but now also downwards creating a high unstable and dangerous surface for the horse to walk upon.

Additionally, with shoes, the horse is unable to properly feel and assess the surface upon which he is walking and although under some circumstances, he may appear to be afforded more traction, the net result is one of much increased chance of injury. It is therefore advisable to remove the shoes now, before the winter really sets in, and when the spring comes, leave the shoes off! Your horse really does not need them.

If you wish to know more about barefoot riding, please do not hesitate to contact us at info@sabots-libres.eu

Keeping Warm

I got home yesterday afternoon to see two horses in the field next to the house wearing blankets! It was 15˚C… Why on earth anyone should put a blanket on a horse when it is that warm is beyond me. Even Full-blood Arab horses are quite capable of withstanding temperatures well below freezing (it gets pretty cold in the desert at night!) and all horses are equipped with very effective systems for keeping the body warm and for insuring that water (and sweat) is channelled off the body and, if in large quantities, transported to the ground.