Now that the temperatures are dropping, the debate over whether you should or should not blanket your horses in the winter is in full force. Some people start blanketing their horses when the temperatures drop into the 40s at night; others find their horses do fine even when faced with single-digit temperatures.
In truth, most horses do just fine without blankets, provided they have adequate shelter from wind, rain and snow and plenty of forage to help generate heat. After all, the concept of blanketing horses is relatively new; for centuries they survived just fine. They only run into problems when they become wet and cold, or during high winds which separate their hairs and break the insulating barrier of warmth.
I found a helpful description of how a horse’s winter coat keeps him warm at Russo’s Tack Shack:
Your horse’s coat is composed of two types of hair: the fluffy, dense undercoat and a stiffer protective coat called guard hairs. The guard hairs serve to shed rain, keep the undercoat clean and collect moisture that might otherwise dampen the undercoat. During very cold temperatures, this moisture is usually seen in the form of frost. The undercoat provides insulation by trapping air and body heat. It is also dense and soft, like the lining in your jacket.
The hairs are attached to a layer of muscle that moves the hair as needed for additional insulation. Each hair can be stood up or laid down. Each can also be turned in a particular direction. When the hair is standing, it gives your horse a “puffed up” appearance and allows more space to trap and warm the air in. When the hairs lay down, they act more like a cooling device and allow the air warmed by the body to be expelled. The hairs can also be “pointed” in a particular direction to help deflect wind and weather.
Certainly choosing not to blanket has its advantages:
- You save a lot of money. Heck, my horses have some blankets that cost more than my own winter coats!
- No more blanket repairs. When the horses rip the expensive blankets, you don’t need to send them off to be washed and repaired.
- They can’t injure themselves by getting caught up in their blankets.
- They generally don’t overheat, although when temperatures suddenly rise, that can be a problem.
- Horses generally grow their own blankets.
There are times, though, when blanketing is necessary:
- You have clipped your horse and it no longer has enough of its winter coat to stay warm.
- Your horse has moved from warmer climates and is not acclimated to the cold.
- Your horse is older and has trouble staying warm.
- You have a “hard keeper” who has trouble holding weight
- It’s wet as well as cold.
- There isn’t enough shelter for the horses.
As for me, I’m not as obsessive about keeping my horse warm as I used to be. When I leased my first horse, I can remember tucking him in for the night wearing his stable blanket in his cozy stall. The doors and windows of the barn were closed and it was significantly warmer inside than out.
I still blanket, but for the past three years my horses have lived out 24/7 with access to their stalls. Much to my surprise, when they had the choice to be in or out, I found that consistently they are out in the winter and inside in the summer. I’ve gone to check on them in the middle of terrible winter storms and found them happily standing outside with icicles dripping from their manes and a layer of snow over their blankets. I think that horses stay healthier this way and that shutting them in at night actually contributes to respiratory problems.
Their obvious comfort in the cold has made me rethink my blanketing strategy. I blanket because I clip my horses. I like to ride in the winter and with a full winter coat they get too hot and sweaty. As a result, they take a long time to cool out properly and are prone to chills. Until I clip, I leave them naked unless it’s both rainy and cold.
I also like the fact that once my horses are clipped, I can help them regulate their temperature. On really warm days I can leave them to soak up the sun blanketless and on extra cold nights, I can add a layer. I’ve read that to approximate the warmth of a natural winter coat, you need 2″ of blanket to replace 1″ of hair.
The blankets you buy today are generally more versatile than in the past as breathable materials are commonplace. It used to be that waterproof blankets weren’t breathable and you ran the risk of having your horse overheat. Now I typically buy a mid-weight breathable blanket and have found that it keeps a horse comfortable over a wide range of temperatures.
Based on what I’ve learned, I no longer shake my head at horses standing outside on a cold day with just their own coats for protection; rather, I shake my head at the horses that are shut up inside, bundled up!