Most Foals Do Well in Cold Environments
Trying to ensure good welfare for our horses can sometimes feel like a trade-off. That’s certainly the case with young foals in cold winters. We’d like to give them freedom, the fresh outdoors, and social contact. But we’d also like to see those babies cuddled up and cozy in a warm stable.

That’s why Finnish researchers recently investigated the respiratory health effects of loose indoor/outdoor group housing on weanling foals in cold Scandinavian winters. And they found that, generally, the foals did very well in this environment.

“With a few exceptions regarding age and breed, weanlings put out in really cold environments with shelters actually had no more respiratory issues than those kept in warmer stables during a harsh Finnish winter,” said Reija Junkkari, PhD, of the University of Helsinki Department of Equine and Small Animal Medicine.

“Foals born later in the season—especially the Standardbred foals in our study—might benefit from staying in a warm stable, however,” she added.

In their study, Junkkari and her fellow researchers evaluated the respiratory health of 60 weanling foals kept in either unheated loose housing systems or in traditional stables, at 11 different farms in Finland. They clinically examined the horses twice, 58 days apart, during a cold winter with temperatures reaching -20°C (about 15°F) for three straight weeks. In the loose housing systems, weanling foals lived together without adult horses present. They had access to a paddock and an indoor shelter that, at most farms, had an entrance covered with flexible plastic strips to block the wind while allowing the horses to enter. Some also had a covered awning in front of a “sleeping hall,” which was closed up but not insulated. In the stables, the foals spent their days outside and their nights inside individual stalls in an insulated barn.

The foals were either Standardbreds or Finnhorses. A Finnhorse is a sturdy local breed with draft and light horse lines averaging 15 hands in height.

They found that, in this environment, neither housing condition put weanlings at greater risk of respiratory (infectious or noninfectious) disease, Junkkari said. During the first exam, soon after weaning, they did find that 39% of the loose-housed foals had signs of respiratory disease compared to only 13% of the stabled foals. But by the end of the experiment two months later, only 11% of the loose-housed foals and 8% of the stabled foals had respiratory disease—an insignificant difference, she said.

They did note, however, an effect of age: The younger the foal, the more likely it was to have clinical signs of respiratory disease, regardless of housing condition, she said.

The researchers also observed study foals’ body condition and blood parameters. They found that Standardbred foals kept in loose housing had lower body condition scores than those kept in stables and than any of the Finnhorses.

Contrary to what they expected, said Junkkari, they noted increased fibrinogen (a marker in the blood that suggests ongoing, active infection) concentrations in the blood of loose-housed foals that had insulated sleeping halls. The foals in loose housing that did not have insulated sleeping halls had healthier blood fibrinogen levels.

“We did not expect that the sleeping hall without insulation would be better than the insulated one,” Junkkari said, adding that the reason behind this phenomenon is still unclear.

Overall, younger and lighter-breed foals might do better in a stabled environment in very harsh winters, said Junkkari. But in either situation, to encourage good respiratory health and body condition, breeders can follow some specific recommendations.

“The shelter should be kept clean and the beddings should be of good quality,” she said. “The ventilation must be good because the humidity will be a problem in cold climates if the ventilation is poor. There must be no wind in the shelter. All foals must be able to sleep in the sleeping hall, including the ones lower in the hierarchy. If the hay is fed outside the shelter, the feeding place should have a roof that gives shelter to the foals as well as to the hay. There should also be a warm stable or box stall for the sick ones.”

The study, “A comparison of unheated loose housing with stables on the respiratory health of weaned-foals in cold winter conditions: an observational field-study,” was published in Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica.