Horses thrive in the winter chill that makes us reluctant to leave our houses. In fact, horses can live outdoors comfortably in temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, so long as they're given plenty of hay, ample unfrozen water and simple shelter designed to protect against the particular bad-weather patterns of their locale. Here are the best shelter types for the three basic wintertime-weather conditions:
Dry and windy: No snow and sleet may be in the forecast, but fierce winds that cut across the plains or desert can be even more brutally chilling to unprotected horses than frozen precipitation. A single wall built to block the prevailing winds may be all horses need to hunker up against and escape the discomfort. If winds are variable, a three-section windbreak with walls arranged around a center post like wheel spokes offers animals a choice of which triangle gives the best protection for the moment. In areas of particularly strong winds, these sheltering walls need some openings to let air pass through; solid structures are more likely to be toppled by gusts.
Rainy and windy: Cold rain driven by strong wind spells misery for even furry horses who can usually shrug off plain rain without distress. A simple three-sided, roofed structure offers adequate protection in these conditions. Site the shed on a well-drained location with its back wall to the prevailing wind, and design a roofline that diverts rain runoff away from the entrance where horse traffic makes some mud inevitable. Have the floor graded with a slight slope to the sides and a slight crowning at the entrance to reduce the formation of mud inside the shed. For most satisfactory footing during the worst of the rainy season, invest in underground drainage and stone dust or aggregate surface materials during construction.
Snowy and very cold: If winter regularly brings snowstorms and consistent subfreezing daytime temperatures, you can still keep turned-out horses safe and comfortable in a shed, but the construction needs to be solid and strong enough to stand up to heavy snow accumulation. Roof slope and strength, in particular, contribute to the safety of the structure. A steep pitch away from the entrance "shrugs off" snow accumulation where horses won't be standing and reduces chances that the entrance will be entirely blocked.
If properly sited with the opening facing the most protected direction (often south), a three-sided shed usually provides sufficient shelter, but in extra-frigid areas, partial enclosure of the fourth side makes the interior cozier. Just be sure to leave a generous entranceway, with room for two horses to pass comfortably. Grade and maintain the shed floor to reduce mud formation, and bed it to make a dry, warm place for horses to snooze out of the snow.
This article first appeared in the November 1999 issue of EQUUS magazine.