How to tell if your horse is cold


Oh, this is a tricky one. There is no definitive way to decide if your horse is cold. However, there are things to measure and look for that can help you decide if you need to add a blanket or even call the vet. Horses can develop hypothermia, so your veterinarian needs to be called immediately.


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Methods to check if your horse is cold that are total bunk:


  • Check his ears! If his ears are cold, he is cold! The problem with this is that it’s about as unscientific as you can get. Your hands may be bundled in mittens and you just came out of a toasty car with the heat on high. Of course, his ears will be cold!


  • OR – you just finished scrubbing buckets, the barn is out of hot water, and you forgot your rubber gloves. Your fingers are now icicles. Of course, his ears will be warm if you touch them with your icicles.


  • Put your hands under the blanket! Same theory – it’s all relative. But, if there’s sweat under the blanket, you have some adjusting as your horse is clearly too warm.


dirty winter blanket on a horse in the snow

Most horses do just fine in winter.


More scientific ways to determine if your horse is cold:


  • Is he running around? Horses might do this to generate body heat. But, they can’t do it all day and all night. Or, he may just be looney-bins, and shenanigans are his jam. You might also see a bunch of cold horses huddled together to share each other’s warmth.


  • Is he a “hard keeper”? Many horses that struggle with keeping weight, or losing weight in the winter, may just be cold at night. All calories he eats are used, and then he needs to tap his reserves to stay warm. There is nothing wrong with helping him out with a blanket and some extra forage. I suggest regularly weighing your horse. There are many other reasons for your horse to be a hard keeper, too, so work with your veterinarian for a complete health check-up. 


  • Is your horse wet to the skin? Unclipped horses that have been sweating will be wet to the skin. This can create skin infections and can lead to hypothermia (a body temperature that is low and unsafe). Cooling out of the sweaty hairy horse in winter is serious business; his health depends on it. More on that topic here.


  • Horses also become wet to the skin in rare, but serious, situations where they are trapped in mud or a bog. Another similar situation is when their blanket is not waterproof, they stand in the rain, and now they are soaked to the skin. If there is even the remotest chance that a blanket will be on a horse outside or exposed through a door or window to the elements, it better be waterproof.


More scientifically sound indications if a horse is cold:


  • Is your horse shivering? This is a very obvious and definitive sign that your horse is cold. At this point, your horse spends a lot of energy moving muscles to stay warm. You need to take his vitals and call your veterinarian for help if you find your horse shivering. And while shivering is a natural response to the cold, it’s not comfortable. In fact, it’s highly uncomfortable. You have the power to help your horse here.


  • What are your horse’s vitals? Remember TPR, Temperature, Pulse, and Respiration? These are indications of hypothermia as well. Having a thermometer and stethoscope on hand are inexpensive necessities that take minutes to use.


horse standing in deep snow in a winter blanket


What you need to know about hypothermia in horses


  • Hypothermia starts when your horse’s body temperature is as low as 98-99 degrees. From there, it can be mild, moderate, or severe. All instances warrant a call to your veterinarian and are relative to his normal, baseline temps.  


  • When you take your horse’s vital signs and his temperature will be lower, his heart rate and respiration may also be affected.


  • Hypothermia can lead to heart trouble, organ failure, and can be fatal. Your veterinarian can advise you on how to help him warm up as they travel to you.


  • Sometimes, warming your horse from the outside with rubbing and blankets is not advised. Sometimes, your veterinarian will administer warmed fluids and monitor for organ damage. 


Look at the big picture


  • If your horse is acting wonky in cold weather, look at more than his vital signs.  What’s his attitude, energy level, and vital signs?  Is he stressed or chill?  When in doubt, call for help.


How does your horse tell you he is cold?


Vital signs are fast and easy to take! 


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