Shivering in Horses

In this article we’re going to talk a bit about shivering in horses. This is different than a horse having Shivers, which is a topic for another article. What we’re talking about here, is just plain being cold, and due to that, shivering.

In the cold winter months the chances of seeing your horse shivering due to being cold are much higher if it’s raining than if it’s just plain dry or even snowing. Cold rain can get through the thickest of coats on horses, and despite the incredible ability of their skin to further protect them from getting cold, sometimes it just isn’t enough.

Horses stay warm in the winter months through thick and healthy coats and the natural ability for their circulatory system and digestive system to work together to keep the cold out, and the warm in. This ability is inhibited if the horse is sick or old, shaved or doesn’t grow a good coat, and finally if the horse does not have enough free hay to eat 24/7. Of those three, the worst culprit is hay surprisingly. Then shaving and then sick/old horses. Believe it or not, we can solve a lot just by making sure they can keep their belly full. Having shelter is also important in the case that even a healthy and full coated horse will want to get out of the rain and wind sometimes.

The general practice is to blanket your horse when “chilly”. For some people, it doesn’t even matter if it’s wet outside, it can just be cold and blanketing becomes a requirement as I recall one lady saying that if it gets below 10 degrees Celsius she would blanket. While blanketing isn’t the primary topic for this post, it becomes secondary as we talk about shivering in horses, why it happens, what it looks like and how to help.

Surprisingly it is hard to come across a good example of a horse shivering in a video. There are a few, but it doesn’t seem to be well documented and if you have never seen a horse shivering, you may not know what to look for. Here is a quick clip of a horse shivering.

As you can see, a shivering horse doesn’t shake all over or chatter teeth like we do. The main muscle groups are the ones that are moving or having spasms as that movement helps provide heat, as does any movement. The shoulder and flank are the most common areas to look as they tend to jiggle a bit. The day this video was taken was when we had some freezing rain come down for the whole morning. While this horse did actually have lots of food, he didn’t choose to stay under shelter of large trees in the pasture, and instead continued foraging as that is his natural instinct to stay warm. If a horse is walking around, the shivering may go unnoticed. It’s easily seen though when they stop moving.

This horse is generally not blanketed and while is fine on dry days in the cold and relatively warm days in the rain, the combination of near freezing temperature and rain was too much. It may come as a surprise to some, but most horses (if they are allowed to keep their coat) will not get overly cold in the snow. It’s the rain that can get them chill to the skin as it slowly gets through the coat. Even a thick and oily coat will sooner or later fail to protect the horse and this needs to be accommodated for. Either through good shelter with warmth provided, or a blanket.

Obviously, a horse shivers for the same reason we do, it’s cold. It looks different though as their teeth don’t chatter and their whole body starts shaking. For minor shivering you may not even notice much, especially if they are walking around. More pronounced shivering though can be seen easily as their muscles spasm in an effort to warm the body up. Once found it’s important to take action as quick as possible. Again, this is either by leading them to warm cover or by blanketing. If you can dry them off a bit first, then that’s even better, but horses will dry off quite quickly under a dry blanket as the heat from their body burns off the moisture and it wicks into the blanket.

The bottom line is that if a horse has made it to the point of shivering, then human intervention is advised. Recognizing when that happens and predicting when it could happen for each individual horse, is where good husbandry practices come in to place. While it’s acknowledged that we all don’t have time to be taking blankets on and off daily to accommodate the fluctuation of temperatures throughout the day, it’s something to consider as we pay attention to both the shivering and the sweating that goes on for over blanketing.