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 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.
A lot of responsible horse owners have happy horses without blankets. However, there is a checklist before you choose not to blanket your horse.
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.
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:
Horse owners need to be aware of the hazards when they opt to blanket their horse.
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.
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.
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.
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.