Horses asked how they prefer to stay warm

Worried about the Norwegian habit of shearing off horses' thick winter coats and replacing them with blankets, Norwegian researchers have started asking the horses themselves how they prefer to ward off the cold.

Horses asked how they prefer to stay warm
Knerten, a horse owned by Ida Nova, dressed in a specially knitted traditional Norwegian sweater. Photo: Ida Nova
Grete Jørgensen, a researcher with the Norwegian Institute for Agricultural and Environmental Research, told The Local how her joint Norwegian-Swedish research project had hired a professional trainer to teach 13 horses, based at Nypan outside Trondheim, to request or refuse a warm, dry blanket.
"The horses soon learned, using positive reinforcement techniques, that if they want to change their situation — either to remove a blanket or have one put on — they should tap one symbol with their muzzle.  If they want to remain the same, they tapped on another,"  Jørgensen said. 
Most horses chose to keep their blankets on during days with wind, rain or sleet, with the number of horses requesting the removal of their blankets increasing as the temperature rose and spring brought sunny weather.
Jørgensen said her colleagues Knut Bøe and Cecilie Mejdell, who ran the Nypan project, aimed "to ask horses whether they really need these blankets and rugs or whether they preferred to use their own coats to regulate their body temperature in different weather."
Meanwhile, at a local horse farm on Alstahaug, an island off the coast of north west Norway, Jørgensen offered 16 horses the choice of a heated shelter, an unheated shelter, or staying outside.
"We wanted to investigate how horses from several different breeds would tackle different winter weather conditions," she explained. 
She found that the horses did not want to come inside the shelters when the weather was dry, even at very low winter temperatures. When there was rain or sleet, however, the horses were more likely to start muscle shivering or move inside. 
"The weather here up on the northern Norwegian coast is quite changeable, so you can have three seasons in one day, and rain and maybe sleet, which is really challenging for the horses to keep up their core body temperature," she said.

Certain Nordic breeds appeared capable of withstanding extreme cold even when it was wet.
"We actually have horses that even in the worst conditions never chose to go inside because the water never gets close to the skin," she explained. "Coat condition is very important and maybe even more important than breed. If the coat is really good, like on a Norwegian breed, then the coat has this cover layer which transports the water off the top of the coat so it never gets wet at the skin."
Jørgensen said that the project would help determine the extent to which the rugs and blankets commonly used in Norway and Sweden were actually helping the animals. 
"Many owners have no clue whether their horses need rugs and blankets, so they dress them up both indoors and in the paddock," she said.  "Too much use of rugs over time may produce sores and chaffing. The horse is not able to scratch in itchy places and the coat will not develop to its full length."
The joint Swedish-Norwegian project is titled "Impact of Nordic climate and management practices on thermoregulation in the horse". 
The Norwegian Project Group comprises Grete Jørgensen and Lise Aanensen from Bioforsk Nord Tjøtta, Knut Bøe from The Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), and Cecilie Mejdell from The Norwegian Veterinary Institute. The Project is financed through the Swedish-Norwegian Horse Research fund and the Norwegian Research Council. 
Abstracts or the research can be found here and here

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Braving Norway’s cold: Surfing above the Arctic Circle

The water is just four degrees Celsius, but some surf almost every day in the frigid waves off the coast of Norwegian islands above the Arctic Circle.

Braving Norway's cold: Surfing above the Arctic Circle
Surfers in Unstad. Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP

“You come up from the ocean and you're just freaking cold,” says Unn Holgersen.

It's deep winter in this land of the spectacular Northern Lights, flashing green on the horizon, and the water is just four degrees above zero.

“You have to put your feet in a bowl of hot water and you have to change really quickly,” the 32-year-old veterinarian advises.

It may be cold and isolated, but Holgersen has chosen to live on the Lofoten islands because she is addicted to the thrill of winter surfing.

On its snow-covered beaches, she and other dedicated surfers brave the freezing weather — outside air temperature is a chilly minus 15 Celsius — and the ferocity of the ocean.

“I love the feeling,” says one surfer after riding the waves.

That exhilaration is shared by all those who visit the tiny town of Unstad on the islands.

Among them are two students, Christina Kolbu and Solmoy Austbo, who travelled three days in a mini-van to reach the frosty shores.

They quickly change out of their hippy garb, put on thick winter wetsuits and grab their boards to head out into the waiting surf.

A surfer puts his board away after a session in Unstad. Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP

Despite the chill, they do not hesitate as they plunge into the glacial waters.

When coming back to shore, they clutch their boards as they clamber up the beach as thick snowflakes fall around them.

Unstad is a favourite site with surfers: a vast open horizon with a series of snow-capped peaks on either side of the beach.

Situated above the Arctic Circle, around the same latitude as northern Siberia and Alaska, its waters remain accessible due to the Gulf Stream, which somewhat warms the ocean current that flows across the Atlantic to Norway's coast.

“Surfing is a lifestyle, it's a must,” says Lisa Blom, a 38-year-old hotel manager.

“We have better waves, quality waves, they're usually bigger, consistent.”

Some of the surfers argue there are even better waves here than in southern Europe or Bali.

“We have nice clear days, there are not too many people and the beautiful scenery,” says Holgersen. “It's the whole package.”

Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP

READ ALSO: Pushing the limit riding Norway's frozen waves