Through the centuries the Icelandic horse has been kept outside in the harsh Icelandic weather conditions and is fully capable of remaining outside all year around. The main advantages for them being outside lies in the freedom where the natural behaviour of horses can be enjoyed. Their physical needs are also better met in the open air and movement is important to all horses, especially the young & growing that are building up the musculoskeletal system. When outdoors, their nutrition tends to be more varied and healthier and they have excellent control of their temperature through their thick winter coats.
Biologically their winter coat provides a unique insulation, airy like a feather close to the skin with long hairs. Fat in the coat repels water and the skin is thick. In cold conditions the Icelandic horse reduces blood flow in order to minimise heat loss. The Icelandic horse also accumulates fat reserves under the skin to increase insulation. Horses have the ability to sleep standing up and have a specially developed vascular system in their legs that prevents cold blood from the feet from cooling the body and prevents them from getting cold on their feet. This way the Icelandic horse can stand in the snow for a long time without wasting significant energy on it.
Horses are most vulnerable towards wet weather, especially cold showers, in the autumn before they put on their full winter coat and in spring when they have started sheading it. In these circumstances, it is important that the horses have access to some shelter. Having access to a shelter is also important in winter conditions, however they often choose not to utilize a shelter when a winter storm hits and instead choose to huddle together and put their back into the wind. During the winter months horses can fulfil their water needs to a large extend by eating snow but during the frost period one should pay special attention. When the snow freezes up, they will have problems getting their supply of water so it can be good to break up snow for them or bring them water. Over this period, it is important not to increase their need for water with salt stones, supplements or protein-rich feed, that is reserved for another time. Milking mares are the ones that are in the biggest need for hydration, but other vulnerable groups are young and growing horses and older horses that have underlying metabolic or hormone-related diseases.
If you plan to keep your horse outdoors over the winter months, then it is good to make sure they have access to good pastures in the autumn with a good shelter from bad weather. Natural shelters can work well but if they are not available then it is necessary to offer the horses man-made shelters. When they are to be outdoors from autumn and until the end of the year, let alone longer, they need to have a good fat layer and good coat. Otherwise, they will not tolerate adverse weather conditions. Horses that form a normal fat layer will quickly lose it when they are taken back into use and receive regular exercise. On the other hand, it is not good for any horse to stand around a roll of hay all day with unlimited access to it, especially in the case of strong hay, as obesity in horses has become a major problem over the recent years. It can be difficult to get them back to normal, and excess fat can cause all sorts of problems, including the painful restraint.
Many people have the experience that horses that walk on wet land are more likely to get rain rot. They must at least be able to walk on land that is partly dry. Rain rot usually happens in rough and wet weather. Then the top layer of the epidermis gets wet and destroyed, the sebaceous glands form a discharge that becomes a scab that sticks to the hair. As a result, the fat in the skin and hair ceases to provide the protection they do on a healthy horse.
If a horse gets rain rot, they should be closely monitored. They need to have a good shelter and sufficient food and it is necessary to have them in the stable if they start to lose weight. Horses that are fat and have a good winter coat are better prepared for the winter and are less likely to get rain rot. Of course, while the rain rot is present, it is not possible to saddle the horses, as they can cause considerable pain. Regular monitoring of horses during autumn and winter work is therefore very important so that it is possible to identify it in time, so the worst can be prevented.
When monitoring and assessing the living conditions of your horses outdoors, you must consider factors that affect the herd's welfare holistically, such as feed condition, hair and other health factors, land quality, shelter, and the climate of the area. Where horses are thin (low body condition <3), higher requirements for horse shelters are needed, along with improved feeding. In the same way, the demand is milder if the horses are in very good condition. Where the young horses are kept in groups, there is a greater need for shelter, and it is recommended that such groups can be accommodated inside in bad weathers.
Some guidance tips for the preparation for the winter period:
- Sort horses according to feed needs before autumn and ensure suitable grazing and/or feeding for all groups. It is important that the outdoor horses are in abundant body condition (>3.5) in the autumn, and winter feeding should take into account their condition.
- Keep outdoor horses on a spacious pasture with variable terrain and/or man-made shelter.
- Deworm sensitive groups or the whole herd depending on the situation and in consultation with a veterinarian.
- Reduce the risk of accidents.
• Increase surveillance of outdoor horses in the run-up to bad weathers and after.
• Pay special attention to individual horses that can be sensitive in the run-up to bad weather. This is especially true for older horses that are starting to lose muscle mass and / or have developed metabolic disorders.
• Feed horses, which have started outdoor feeding, well in advance of the impending bad weather. Feed in an open area. Assess the need/risk for other groups according to the situation.
• Visit horses as soon as possible after bad weathers, feed and water as needed.
• Seek veterinary advice for sick and injured horses.