Winter is coming, and that means some fundamental changes for our horses. Changing daylength and decreased temperatures are two of the most obvious impacts of winter. Cold, dark mornings and evenings become the standard experience of many horse owners. Our horses adapt to these changes by growing longer, thicker coats1 and their reproductive function will change, with temperature influencing the reproductive cycle of mares especially2. Now might be an ideal time to review any general or specific requirements that may benefit from supplemental nutrition or other amends to our day-to-day equine management.
When the clocks fall back
In the autumn, our clocks go back. Overnight, our normal routine changes by an hour. The twice-yearly changing of the clocks was originally intended to save energy but now represents more of a change to our ‘social clocks’ because of artificial lighting. While there are health implications for us linked to the changing of the clocks3, the major effect on our horses is the change to their usual routine by an hour. For creatures of habit, this routine change can be difficult for some, so careful management might be needed, but in most cases, horses adapt to their new ‘social clock’ with minimal issues.
Changing daylight hours
The amount of natural daylight that animals are exposed to is called the photoperiod and it is critical for setting the ‘body clock’. Photoperiod is also the dominant indicator of changing seasons and allows animals to adapt accordingly. Photoperiod is detected by the pineal gland, located deep in the centre of the brain. The hormone melatonin is produced by the pineal gland and as daylength decreases, melatonin secretion increases. Melatonin regulates sleep patterns and a whole host of other biological functions through its interactions with other hormones, including those that regulate reproduction. Typically, darkness is associated with increased melatonin secretion but in horses, sudden changes to light or dark exposure will immediately cause its secretion to decrease or increase4. This is significant for effective management of equine breeding stock. Photoperiod and temperature are also important in managing coat growth in horses and the use of artificial light sources and rugs at specific times can effectively inhibit coat growth and enhance mouting5.
Unlike the clocks changing, seasonal changes are more gradual and predictable environmental events that induce a range of adaptions in animals. For our horses however, many ‘natural’ seasonal cues become altered because of management regimes including housing, exercise, dietary or other environmental alterations including the use of rugs, clipping and artificial lighting. Some of these can challenge equine health and wellbeing. Nutritional management is an ideal way of supporting overall health, or for implementing targeted dietary intervention strategies for areas such as skin condition or digestive health, especially during seasonal change.
Supporting general health and wellbeing
Clearly, seasonal changes mean some significant changes for our horses. With some careful consideration of specific needs, strategies can be put into place to support health and welfare. Targeted nutritional supplementation can be a highly effective way of helping our horses deal with the challenges of winter. Dietary changes are common, whether that is reduced access to grazing or alterations in forage and other food provision. Indeed, changes in grazing, reduced turnout time, increased stabling and dietary alterations can all impact on digestive function that might benefit from nutritional support. Dietary changes can be effectively supported by the use of our Gut Balancer, a formulation that includes pro- and prebiotics to support overall digestive health.
Winter also often means increased time spent inside, whether stabled, on restricted turnout or exercising in indoor venues. This can mean more exposure to dust and other possible respiratory irritants that can impact on respiratory health. RespirAid DHA is a nutritional supplement specifically formulated to support respiratory health, through providing powerful antioxidant ingredients, such as vitamin C in the form that is most effectively absorbed by horses. It also includes a marine source of omega-3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) to support the inflammatory response. A careful combination of environmental management and dietary supplementation can be a highly effective way of helping our horses deal with the challenges of winter.
1. Schmidt K, Deichsel K, de Oliveira RA, Aurich J, Ille N, Aurich C. Effects of environmental temperature and season on hair coat characteristics, physiologic and reproductive parameters in Shetland pony stallions. Theriogenology. 2017 Jul 15; 97:170-178. doi: 10.1016/j.theriogenology.2017.04.035. Epub 2017 Apr 27.
2. Guerin MV, Wang XJ. Environmental temperature has an influence on timing of the first ovulation of seasonal estrus in the mare. Theriogenology. 1994 Nov 1;42(6):1053-60. doi: 10.1016/0093-691x(94)90127-5.
3. Roenneberg T, Wirz-Justice A, Skene DJ, Ancoli-Israel S, Wright KP, Dijk DJ, Zee P, Gorman MR, Winnebeck EC, Klerman EB. Why Should We Abolish Daylight Saving Time? J Biol Rhythms. 2019 Jun;34(3):227-230. doi: 10.1177/0748730419854197.
4. Walsh CM, Prendergast RL, Sheridan JT, Murphy BA. Blue light from light-emitting diodes directed at a single eye elicits a dose-dependent suppression of melatonin in horses. Vet J. 2013 May;196(2):231-5. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2012.09.003. Epub 2012 Oct 15.
5. O'Brien C, Darcy-Dunne MR, Murphy BA. The effects of extended photoperiod and warmth on hair growth in ponies and horses at different times of year. PLoS One. 2020 Jan 14;15(1):e0227115. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0227115.