Farming Magazine - February, 2014


Working Horses: Thermoregulation in Cold Weather

By Vicki Schmidt

Quality teamsters pay attention to their working draft's needs with regard to conditioning and weather.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.

The last few months have seen a flurry of information on the Internet concerning thermoregulation in horses in colder climates. Thermoregulation is the horse's ability to effectively regulate its body temperature. This sounds simple enough. However, human actions can often upset a horse's ability to regulate its temperature naturally.

I have yet to find a quality article about managing thermoregulation in colder climates for a working draft: a draft that works several hours a day, several days a week in temperatures and wind conditions that vary daily and often hourly. There are few horses that are used in cold climates as much as a working draft, and attention to thermoregulation is crucial for successfully working your draft in colder weather.

I recently read an article, "Thermoregulation in horses in a cold time of year," by Natalija Aleksandrova. The article states: "Few horse owners realize how well adapted horses are to deal with cold when certain aspects of their lifestyle are in place for them." The key phrase is "when certain aspects of their lifestyle are in place for them." I highly recommend that any working draft owner read the entire article ( It will help owners understand why - and how - they need to adjust the way they care for their working draft.

Another great quote from the article: "It is far easier for horses to warm up in cold weather than to cool down in hot weather, or to cool down after intensive exercising. Cooling down is more difficult for the horse." All working horses need to have their thermoregulation managed more intensively than horses kept in a more passive or idle lifestyle. Due to their large, deep muscle mass, draft horses will hold heat and release it more slowly than light horses under the same relative working conditions.

Working horses in cold weather often means dealing with sweaty horses in cold weather.

Knowing this begs the question, especially for newer teamsters: How do I monitor and support my draft's natural abilities to maintain thermoregulation when working in cold temperatures? Another important consideration is: How have our chosen breeding characteristics and modern lifestyle impacted the modern working horse's ability to maintain its natural thermoregulation?

In addressing these questions, let's look at five elements quality teamsters should consider:

  • the color and consistency of a horse's sweat;
  • balancing calorie and nutritional intake and energy export;
  • the need for fresh water and salts;
  • maintaining a quality coat of hair; and
  • protecting your draft from chilling air.


Working horses in cold weather often means dealing with sweaty horses in cold weather. Sweating is the natural mechanism used to cool the horse. The horse will usually sweat to the same degree as its work. Sweat excretes salts and other chemicals, as well as some waste materials. The color of sweat can tell you a lot. Clear sweat indicates a horse that is in better shape for the work it is doing, both physically and as far as its balances of salts and nutrition are concerned. White, frothy sweat signals the release of excessive salts and byproducts. A brownish, frothy sweat means the same, but the color is a sign that the skin and hair are very dirty.

Calories equal energy

Calorie and nutritional intake must equal calories and nutrition expended during work. The natural cold-weather nutritional needs of the idle or semi-idle horse will be minimal compared to the nutritional needs of the working draft. One consideration is providing good-quality roughage hay with some highly nutritional hay and split feedings (morning and night at least) of high-fat concentrated feeds.

Idle horses can usually eat when they want and around the clock if fed free choice. Working drafts often have this same luxury when they're not working. However, time spent working burns calories, and they also need time to sleep. Horses, just like people, need deep sleep to help heal and restore balance to their mental, physical and overall health. Working horses need to have their diet adjusted to accommodate time for deep sleep. The easiest way to do this is to supplement their roughage hay with hay and feed that have a higher concentration of nutrients.

Drafts that work to the point of sweating need more attention to impacts on their thermoregulation than horses that are idle or that do only light, casual work.

Fresh water and salt

Quality teamsters never underestimate the value of salt in their working drafts' diet. Ideally, ensure that loose salts are freely available whenever they are not working. Horses are nibblers, not lickers, and working drafts can utilize loose salts more easily than solid blocks. If drafts sweat a lot, they may not obtain adequate salt intake from blocks. Topdressing grains with loose salt will tell you if your drafts are getting enough. Salt they don't need will be left at the bottom of the feeder. If they clean up all the salt, they are most likely lacking and need more.

Allowing your horse to drink unlimited amounts of clean water at least twice a day is vital. Free-choice water is preferred, but cold weather makes it hard to ensure an open water source. Do not use that as an excuse, as thirsty horses are highly prone to impaction and colic. Horses will drink more water if it's in the 60-degree Fahrenheit range, so take the chill off cold water if at all possible.

Maintain a quality coat of hair

The coat of a working draft needs to be well brushed almost daily. Brushing keeps the skin healthy, distributes protective oils throughout the hair shaft, and promotes the hair's ability to work properly in the thermoregulation process. Your draft will also interpret brushing as friendship and a form of mutual grooming. This bonding is good for the mental and spiritual health of both you and your draft.

Protection from wind and drafts

One benefit of living in this day and age is the number of materials available to help keep us and our equine counterparts warm and dry. Modern horse blankets are light and enable moisture transport. They're also easier to clean and dry than wool and canvas blankets.

After drafts are done working, a blanket will protect them from chilling winds, but still allow them to cool down and dry with ease. Wool blankets and throws are still a favorite and work almost as well. Many working drafts will not need to be blanketed when adequately stabled or turned out once their coat is dry and brushed. However, some drafts, especially those with genetic lines bred for lightweight coats, may benefit from a light blanket when temperatures drop.

Working drafts in colder climates can be highly rewarding when done in a knowledgeable fashion. Good teamsters understand their horses' natural thermoregulation abilities, but also realize that their horses do not live and work in a natural environment. Complementary adjustments are easily learned and implemented and are vital for a successful and healthy career as a working draft.

Vicki Schmidt owns and operates Troika Drafts, a 100-acre working draft horse farm in western Maine. The farm features drafts and crosses for work, sport and show. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.