It sounds like an old wives’ tale, but feeling your horse’s ears is a good way to gauge whether he is cold. Remove your glove and gently cup an ear. If it’s warm, chances are the rest of your horse is as well. If it feels cold, he may be having trouble staying warm. But don’t use the “ear test” as your sole source of evidence about your horse’s winter comfort—be on the lookout for other signs that he may be chilly.
Shivering is a sure sign that your horse is cold. Reflexive contractions of the muscles, shivering helps the body keep warm but at great metabolic cost. If you find a horse shivering, immediately help him warm up with a blanket or shelter. He is literally shivering pounds away, and he is just as uncomfortable as you would be if you were cold enough to shiver.
A horse who is losing weight over the winter is utilizing more calories than he is taking in. The first fix is to provide free-choice forage. Digesting hay provides a “slow burn” in the gut, warming the horse at his core. If your horse can’t maintain his weight with an increased hay ration, consult with your veterinarian about increasing his grain or perhaps adding calories in the form of fat, such as corn oil, to his diet.
Although you don’t want your horse to be cold, be careful to avoid putting too heavy a blanket on him. A horse who sweats under a blanket will become chilled, which can leave him even colder and at risk of serious illness. Err on the side of leaving him slightly chilled, blanketing for the warmest anticipated temperature of the day, not the coldest.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #461, February 2016.