Southern parts of the United Kingdom are currently experiencing quite a freeze, with temperatures diving below freezing at night. With this closely following a period of intense rain and wind, many horse owners would be forgiven for rushing out to rug their ponies. But ask the ponies themselves and they have other ideas!
When it grows colder, horses grow a coat to match. The Exmoor ponies, having evolved in the wilds of the Exmoor National Park uplands, with it's harsh weather and terrain, grow the most amazingly thick winter coats. A soft downy insulating layer is topped with a thick, long, greasy topcoat that keeps them warm and dry. Even when severely tested during the worst of the winter.
If we rug the ponies during the winter, the coats are flattened and can't do their jobs properly. When unrugged, the hairs rise up, trapping air between the hairs, to keep the animal warmer - and the coat thickens according to what's needed.
So currently, our Exmoors are growing beautifully fluffy, thick velvety winter coats. You can see from the image above, that when the sodden top layer is lifted, the soft, downy coat underneath is dry.
Of course, the management system of unrugged ponies is important too. Part of keeping warm is to keep moving, so shutting the ponies in small stables for the night prevents them moving around properly and they can get stiff and cold like the rest of us, particularly if there are freezing draughts blowing through. They also need to fuel themselves with access to ad lib forage. If the ponies are shod, a cold metal shoe between them and the ground, raising the frog off the ground, also makes it more difficult to power their circulation and keep warm. A group of ponies together can also generate more warmth.
When the ponies are barefoot, their hooves can expand and contract as nature intended, as they move, allowing the frog to reach the ground. The movement (concussion generated) helps to pump blood up and down the legs and around the body, enabling the circulation to work effectively and keep the ponies warmer.
So the most effective way to help ponies during the worst of the winter is to allow them to live in herds, with free access to migrate in and out from dry, sheltered areas to the pasture. Leaving them barefoot and rugless and with access to good forage and grazing 24/7. It can be surprising when and for how long they migrate in and out. Sometimes, they will be in the barn all lying down together or feeding - and at other times, they can choose to be outside again in the pelting rain or driving wind. The important thing is that they have the choice to regulate and manage their own movement, rest, shelter and food intake. The result is a herd of happy ponies, even in the worst of the weather.
Copyright: Dawn Westcott