Frostbite: if you live in an area where winters reach freezing temperatures, you've dealt with the risk. Standing in the snow for hours on end wouldn't be such a good idea for humans-but what about horses? Horses are actually very sturdy animals when it comes to cold weather, and are much more adapt than humans. Evolving in a temperate climate, the horse is able to escape frostbite on their feet in many cases because their body saves energy by only sending warm blood to their hooves when it is absolutely necessary. Thus, the healthy horse is able to spend long days standing in the snow, whereas humans could get frostbite in a matter of hours. Although these animals are normally comfortable in cold temperatures, frostbite is still sometimes likely. So what are the signs of equine frostbite, and what can you do to prevent it?
It is rare that healthy, well fed horses will fall victim to frostbite due to the heat their bodies produce while digesting roughage, and the insulation their natural winter coat provides. Usually, frostbite occurs in younger and older horses due to less stored fat in their bodies, inadequate winter coat, or poor circulation. Factors that can expose your horse to frostbite include:
- Skin that has been exposed to sweat after exercising, or other moisture.
- Recently relocating from a different climate.
- Unhealthy or older horses that aren't consuming enough calories.
- Wind exposure, or extreme temperatures.
It is most common on the tips of the ears, where it will go unrecognized by most owners until many days later, when more obvious signs start to show. If the case is severe enough, the frostbite will cause the tip of the ear to fall off, causing a permanent deformality-which can be very alarming, yet certainly not a life-threatening situation. In the ears and other affected areas such as the legs and dock of the tail, there might be significant swelling on the skin, it may turn dark, feel like leather to the touch, and become very hard. Your horse is very likely to be in pain if any part of his body is frostbitten, which may cause signs of discomfort such as: head shaking, pawing, or curling of the lip. If untreated, the tissue will likely die and slowly begin to fall off and create an open, bleeding wound that may be prone to infection. Frostbite in the hooves is very rare but serious, as it may cause sloughing of the hoof wall and require immediate medical attention. In any case of frostbite, call your veterinarian, as antibiotics, anti-inflammatory, or pain medications may be prescribed.
To prevent frostbite, your horse should always be checked on during the winter months. Feeding extra hay on especially cold days or nights is important, as well as providing proper access to fresh water. Always make sure your horse is dry after a workout before returning him to a stall or paddock, even if he is wearing a blanket. Make sure your horse also has access to shelter from the wind at all times, is eating properly and consuming enough calories to keep him warm internally. If age or illness makes your horse is susceptible to the cold, keep him in a well ventilated barn, as ventilation is crucial to prevent respiratory illnesses. Natural insulation of his winter coat is the most important factor for your horse's warmth. Signs your horse isn't well insulated, and that he may need a winter blanket are:
- Melting snow on his back.
- Frequent pacing, or shivering.
- Tail held closely to his body.
If you recognize a horse that is showing signs of frostbite, don't wait to call the veterinarian. In the meantime, moving him into a barn or sheltered area and blanketing him until the vet arrives is necessary. Slow thawing of the frostbitten area with warm water can help the tissue warm up until further help arrives. The best way to apply warm water is with a bucket of water and a towel-but do not rub the area, as rubbing can destroy the tissue.