WINTER BLANKETS: Necessity or Nuisance?

            It is mid-winter, and the horses in this barn are bundled up in thick, quilted winter blankets, with matching hoods that make them look like jousting horses on their way to a tournament. Yes, the mercury has fallen -- all the way down to 65 F -- and the owners of these horses at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center are not going to let their precious darlings suffer from the deep chill.
            While the above scenario (true, I might add) will no doubt elicit chuckles from people who actually experience real winter, there are plenty of strident voices out there who say that most horses don’t need blankets at all, even in harsh winter climates. Advocates of “natural horsekeeping” assert that blanketing horses actually makes them colder, as the blanket compresses their coat, destroying the insulating properties of the warm air normally trapped between the fluffed up hairs.
            Nonetheless, if you’ve ever seen a horse shivering in the cold, then watched him almost sigh with relief when his blanket goes on and the shivering stops, it might be a little difficult to believe that you just made him colder. The truth is that when you are asking yourself whether or not your horses need to be blanketed, you need to look at a number of factors – and the “right” answer will vary from place to place, horse to horse, and day to day.

Weather or Not

            Generally speaking, healthy, well-fed, unclipped horses in good body condition can handle temperatures down to –40 without distress – as long as they stay dry. Soak a horse’s coat with water, however, and you have an entirely different situation on your hands. A wet horse will quickly lose heat through both conduction and convection, effectively creating a “heat sink” that saps a tremendous amount of energy from the horse’s body. According to author and horse care expert Heather Smith Thomas, “A wet horse loses body heat up to 20 times faster than a dry horse.”
Cold, wet horses will often shiver, which is the body’s attempt to warm itself through small, repeated muscle contractions. Says Thomas, “Since most of this muscle action is being converted to heat, this is a very effective way for a horse to warm himself. It takes a great deal of energy, however, to shiver for a prolonged period, and this can use up his energy stores.” Therefore, a horse living in a temperate but rain-soaked area like coastal British Columbia may have greater need of a blanket than a horse living in a colder but drier place like Alberta.
Sue Frank, of Aldergrove, BC, knows all too well what wet weather can do to a horse. As she explains, “People think that we don’t get ‘real’ Winter out here, so why would we blanket our horses, but I just can’t stand to see them out there shaking like leaves and looking all hunched up and miserable. I find that rain sheets – waterproof, breathable blankets with no fill whatsoever – are perfect for this climate, as the temperatures here remain fairly warm. The sheets act like a portable shelter, so the horses can still move around their paddock and stay dry. In fact, when they have their sheets on, they almost never go in their shelters.”
            Snow is less of a problem for horses than rain, as it doesn’t tend to soak the entire coat. A horse may get somewhat wet along the topline if snow accumulates and melts, but the majority of the coat will often remain dry and will therefore be able to maintain its warm air-trapping “loft”. Sometimes you will see a horse with ice all along its back, yet if you dig your fingers underneath its coat, you will find that the horse’s skin is dry and warm. Still, snow can cause a problem if it is wet and heavy, so blanketing may be in order in such conditions.
            Wind is another factor that comes into play in the blanketing equation. “In windy regions,” says Thomas, “horses need some type of shelter to protect against the wind chill that can whip away body heat.” Horses provided with a good windbreak may still be fine without a blanket, but if there is no place to get out of the wind, or there is a good chance that the horse may get wet, a blanket would likely be beneficial.

Body Condition
            If you think about arctic whales, seals, polar bears and other animals that thrive in the most frigid conditions, they all have one thing in common: an insulating layer of fat that protects them from the extremes of their environment. Horses get similar protection from having a layer of fat to ward off the cold, but they should not be allowed to become too fat, as obesity in horses can have serious consequences such as laminitis and metabolic disturbances.
On a horse, a healthy layer of fat is one that covers the ribs enough so that you don’t see them, but you can still feel them if you run your thumb over them with slight pressure. You should not be able to feel deep impressions between the ribs, just the outermost part of the bone. Remember that a thick hair coat can mask a “ribby” horse, so feeling is more reliable than how a horse looks to the eye.
If you find that a horse is not able to maintain a protective amount of fat – as is often the case with senior horses or those with a particularly fast metabolism – blanketing is probably a good idea, especially if the temperature drops below –9 C. Thin horses will also be especially vulnerable to wet weather, so keep a lookout for shivering, even if the temperature seems relatively warm.

Clipped or Au Naturel

            The winter coat of a horse is designed to keep him warm, which is a good thing if your horse is not worked much during the cold months. However, if you want to continue working your horse through the winter, a thick winter coat may actually cause him to get chilled. This is because a coat wet with sweat is much like a coat wet with rain – it doesn’t dry well in cool and/or moist weather, and it will wick heat away from the horse. For many people, the solution is a partial or full clip that allows sweat to dry more quickly. 
Unfortunately, clipping a horse leaves him essentially “naked” to the elements, so blanketing is definitely required on clipped horses in Northern climes. You may need a variety of blankets on hand for the clipped horse – lighter ones for somewhat cool days, and heavier or layered ones for the real teeth-rattlers.
Horses kept indoors much of the time may also require blankets when turned out, as the artificial light and elevated temperature of an indoor facility can inhibit the growth of a full winter coat. In fact, some show barns keep lights on long enough to simulate summer daylight hours so that their horses do not get “the fuzzies”. Turning such horses out on a cold winter’s day with no protection could be risky to both their health and their comfort.

Blanketing Basics

            If you do choose to blanket your horses, you will want to keep a close eye on them, as blanketing can cause as many problems as it solves. Here are some things you will want to keep in mind:

  • Choose appropriate blankets for your climate. It is often best to have a variety of blankets of varying weights on hand.
  • A horse can get too warm under a blanket if the temperature suddenly goes up or if they exert themselves. “Breathable” blankets can help with this problem, but you still need to check your horses regularly to make sure they are wearing the appropriate weight blanket for that particular day. Inserting a hand under the chest area of the blanket and feeling for sweat is a good way to check for excessive warmth.
  • An ill-fitting blanket can cause discomfort, rubs and sores. Learn how to size blankets correctly to each horse, and adjust straps as necessary to customize fit.
  • Loose or broken straps can lead to serious injury. Adjust belly and rear leg straps so that they are not tight, but sit no more than a few inches away from the underside of the horse. Remove the blanket and repair any broken straps immediately.
  • Blanketed horses must be checked regularly for sores, parasites, fungal infections or any other problems that a blanket might hide. It is best not to leave a blanket on for more than a couple of days before removing it to give the horse a good once-over.
  • Teach your horse to accept a blanket before you need one. If you wait until that first storm hits to start blanket training, you may not be able to get it on, and if you try to rush the process, you could scare the horse and make him develop a fear of blanketing.
  • Follow manufacturer’s instructions when washing blankets. Regular laundry detergent will destroy the waterproofing on many blankets. If the manufacturer tells you to use a special washing liquid, do so. Many blankets also need to be line dried rather than put in the dryer, so check that instruction as well.
  • You tend to get what you pay for. Cheap blankets are usually that way for a reason: inferior materials and workmanship simply cost a lot less. You may find it less expensive in the long run to invest in a good quality blanket that will last several seasons, rather than having to run out and buy several cheap ones each year.

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