Horse Blanketing in Winter: To Blanket or Not?

September 09, 2019

Horse Blanketing in Winter: To Blanket or Not?

 

The temperature is falling and you start feeling the need to wear sweaters and jackets. You wonder if you should give your horse a warm winter blanket as well. But does your horse need an extra layer?

The wild horse has populated the earth over thousands of years. The horse is constantly exposed to ever changing temperature wherever they are on this planet through a day/night rhythm or a seasonal rhythm. Wild and semi-wild horses, including the domestic ones, survive perfectly in any conditions they are exposed to, be it wind, sun, rain, snow, fluctuating temperature, etc., as long as they are provided with appropriate living conditions. The horse has naturally evolved ways of thriving.

According to several studies, horses can do well without a blanket. It also seems to indicate that if given a choice between being outdoors, in a heated shelter, or unheated shelter, they’d most often choose to be outdoors instead. Horses aren’t as affected by the cold as we are. But still, no two horse owners can agree on whether to blanket or not.

 

The Horse Biology

The internal body temperature in mammals is kept within a very narrow range for them to survive. The chemical reactions on a cellular level function improperly or stops functioning if the temperature exceeds these limits above or below. If there are fluctuations outside of the normal temperature range, it could either result in health problems or death of the animal. Older horses keep their internal body temperature at a range around 38 °C. Younger horses such as foals and youngsters, pregnant and lactating mares have a higher internal body temperature.

In the horse’s body, heat is continuously generated as a by-product of metabolism. A healthy animal has significant internal sources of heat from the metabolic processes. The horse has a natural and extremely efficient anatomical, physiological and behavioral thermoregulatory mechanisms to control internal heat loss during the cold time of year.

The domestic horse is the same as its wild counterpart on a genetic level—it has the same abilities and needs to survive. Basically, they do not need anything more from us other than for us to give them freedom to move, access to food, proper hoof care and shelter.

 

When You Choose Not to Blanket

A lot of responsible horse owners have happy horses without blankets. However, there is a checklist before you choose not to blanket your horse.

  1. This is important—your horse must have a full winter coat
  2. Your horse must have adequate shelter outside.
  3. Your horse habitually goes to his shed. Does the forecast say raining or sleeting? If rain, the horse’s coat will be wet. Once the coat is flat, the insulating properties are greatly diminished. Your horse will probably need a waterproof blanket, unless he consistently goes to his shed for shelter.
  4. They need to have plenty of water, and access to it. If the water is in the open, it shouldn’t be frozen. They must have access to it too. Your horse will not drink water if your water bucket is surrounded by ice, or the passage towards it is frozen. They wouldn’t want to cross the ice.
  5. They must be given plenty of forage. It comes in the form of long stem hay or hay cubes or other forage sources. Forage is important because it keeps them warm.
  6. Factor in the age of your horse. If they are very young or very old, they may need a blanket. The blanket is required for these horses to help them maintain their body condition.
  7. Your horse must be in sound health. You can’t leave a horse without a blanket if they are sick or already in poor body condition. Keeping them blanketed when they are ill will help them conserve their energy in maintaining their body condition rather than use that energy in staying warm.

 

When Blanketing is a Good Idea

Generally, horses can be left without a blanket and still be fine in very still, cold weather down to -4 °F (-20 °C). But then, if you add wind-chill and rain into the equation, that will be a different story—you can easily have a shivering horse. The natural loft of your horse’s hair coat will be gone if he becomes very wet. It’s like you are wearing a thick, wet jacket—it won’t keep the cold out and loses its insulating properties. If the forecast says wet weather or you often deal with wet weather, it might be a good idea to have two blankets. You’ll have an extra while the other gets saturated and you are waiting for it to dry out. Leaving a wet blanket on is as bad or probably worse than wearing no blanket at all.

Not all horses are the same. In the same breath, not all horses react to the cold weather in a similar fashion. Older horses or horses that have a problem keeping weight on, younger horses, lactating mares, and thin-coated horses will feel the cold more than thickly coated horses, ponies, or mature healthy horses. The former will burn a lot of calories to keep warm. It would be helpful if they are given extra feed and extra protection in the form of a wind and waterproof horse blanket. A windbreak or a run-in shelter that is accessible is also helpful for them to escape the direct brunt of the elements like wind, rain, or snow.

Watch your horses carefully. Use your best judgment when deciding whether or not to put a winter blanket on your horse. If you see them shivering, standing hunched, or generally looking uncomfortable, a blanket might be needed. If your horse seems cold, it probably is. Extra food, in addition to a winter blanket, is a great help.

 

Choosing Blankets

You’ve decided your horse does need a blanket. Make sure you buy an appropriate blanket suited to his needs. Here are some guidelines to help you:

  1. Blankets should be well fitted. A well fitted blanket doesn’t rub at the withers or the shoulders.
  2. Blanket straps must be fitted close to their body. This is important so that they don’t get their legs tangled. This also makes sure the blanket doesn’t slip or rub them.
  3. Blanket must be rated for the weather, depending on where you are and what’s the weather like. You might have to get more than one blanket for the fall and winter seasons. They might get warm and start sweating if you get them a blanket rated for colder weather. If you get them blankets for not enough for colder weather, then the blanket is doing more harm than good as it will only be laying their coat down. Use sound judgment on this on what blanket to use and when.
  4. Get a waterproof blanket if your horse is out in the rain or sleet. If they get wet through their blanket, they lose the insulating ability of their hair coat as well.
  5. Check and remove the blanket after a couple of days. Make sure it is still fitting the way it should. Check the body condition of your horse under the blanket to see if they haven’t lost too much weight in the cold weather.

 

Blanketing Hazards

Horse owners need to be aware of the hazards when they opt to blanket their horse.

  • Blanket Biting

So one horse in the group is being naughty and decides it’s a good idea to destroy the blanket. This can be frustrating for you when this happens, especially when you just bought that blanket and you get teeth marks after the first day. It can become a hazard because a horse can easily get tangled in a ripped blanket.

  • Getting Tangled with Inappropriate Blankets

Leg straps or hanging belly can get horses caught in a tangle. These are not suitable as outdoors blankets: coolers, sheets, and stable blankets as they often lack the straps and fasteners that prevent outdoor blankets from shifting. Straps are in order, in good condition and adjusted properly.

  • Chafing Caused by Some Fabrics & Poor Breathability

Ill-fitting winter blankets can severely chafe or cut a horse's skin. The horse can also sweat underneath and become uncomfortably wet if winter blankets aren't made of breathable fabrics. When the weather turns mild and horses are still left blanketed, they will be uncomfortable if the fabric is not breathable.

 

Recap

  • Don’t blanket if: your horse is an adult one with a full winter coat, in good health, sound body condition, adequate shelter, and access to plenty of water and hay.
  • Blanket if: your horse is too young, too old, lactating, doesn’t have a good body condition, or if they are ill.
  • When blanketing your horse, choose a blanket that is well fitted, waterproof in the rain, appropriately put on and rated for the weather.
  • Remove the blanket every few days. Check your horse’s body condition.

 

Every horse is unique. If you have more questions, you should confer with your vet. Your vet is one of the best resource persons and can offer more insights if your horse should be blanketed or not.

 




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