The high in Madison, WI today is -4°F, it currently feels like -23°F, and we’re all miserable about it! Because we’re all thinking about our horses standing in this cold weather, we’re here to tackle the omnipresent blanketing question. “Should I blanket my horse in the winter?” Watch Dr. Lisa Nesson, or read below for the full details.
What About the Hair Coat?
If your horse has been allowed to grow a full winter coat, that winter coat is more than capable of keeping them warm, provided you’re meeting a few prerequisites. The full hair coat is very insulating so long as the hair is allowed to stand up. If it’s raining out, the wet weather will flatten the hair coat and destroy those insulating qualities. In this case, you’ll need to make sure you have a well rated water-proof winter blanket, or a shelter for your horse to stand under. Similarly, if your horse has even a light blanket/sheet on, the hair will no longer be able to stand up, and will lose all of its insulating qualities. You shouldn’t put just a light blanket on – you really need to go all the way with a fully rated winter blanket, have blankets available for different temperatures or let them grow out a hair coat.
Thus, if your horse has been body clipped or has not grown a full coat, for whatever reason (recently moved from a warmer climate, or was kept under lights for show reasons) and they haven’t grown a full winter coat, that horse will probably need to be blanketed at the temperatures we’re experiencing at this time of year.
Prerequisites to NOT Blanketing
Plenty of responsible horse owners have happy horses without blankets. There are, however, some prerequisites to this strategy.
Your horse needs a full winter hair coat. See above for reasons why.
Your horse should have some sort of shelter outside. A three-sided shed is quite adequate. You may be able to use a windbreak in the form of a wall or line of trees. Three sided sheds should be south facing and big enough to allow room for all horses into the shed.
Is the weather going to be raining or sleeting? If it is, that rain will wet down the horse’s hair coat. Once that coat is laying flat, it loses its insulating qualities. You’ll probably need a waterproof blanket unless your horse uses a shed consistently.
They need to have water, and plenty of it. It needs to be open, it can’t be frozen, and it needs to be accessible. That last bit is particularly important! You may have water available, but if there’s an ice rink surrounding your water bucket, your horses may not drink because they don’t want to cross the ice. So make sure that there’s safe passage to the water by preventing excessive spillage in warmer temperatures.
They need to have plenty of forage available. Your forage can be in the form of long stem hay or hay cubes, or various other forage sources, but it needs to be available. You can read what Dr. Howard Ketover says about feeding your horse in the winter to understand why forage is so important (hint: it’s what keeps them warm).
Age matters – your horse may need a blanket if they’re very young or very old. The very young and the very old may require blanketing to help them maintain their body condition.
Your horse needs to be healthy. If your horse has been ill, or is already in poor body condition, having them blanketed will help them conserve their energy towards maintaining their body condition, rather than staying warm.
Now that you’ve decided that your horse does need a blanket, you need to make sure you buy an appropriate blanket. Here are your guidelines:
It should be well fitted, so that they don’t rub at the withers or the shoulders.
The blanket straps should be fitted close to their body so that they don’t get their legs tangled and it limits the blanket from slipping and rubbing.
It needs to be rated for the weather they’re turned out in. If they’re rated for colder weather, they may get warm and start sweating. If they’re wearing a blanket that’s not rated heavily enough for the cold weather that they’re in, then that blanket is laying their hair coat down, and is probably doing them more damage than good in terms of keeping them warm. This may mean that you need to have more than one blanket for the fall and winter seasons.
If your horse is out in the rain or sleet, they should be in a waterproof blanket. That may be a waterproof sheet that’s thrown over a heavier blanket, or a water proof blanket. Again, if they get soaked through the blanket, they lose the insulating ability of the blanket as well as the hair coat.
The blanket should be checked and removed every couple of days. You’ll need to do this to make sure it is still fitting the way it should, and so that you can check the horse’s body condition under the blanket to make sure they haven’t lost too much weight in the cold weather.
If you have an adult horse that has a full winter coat, adequate shelter, water, and hay, and is in good health and good body condition, they probably will not need a winter coat.
If you choose to blanket your horse, make sure it’s well fitted, appropriately put on, waterproof in the rain, and rated for the weather.
Remove the blanket every few days to check your horse.
Remember, every horse is unique, so if you have questions, you should check with your veterinarian to determine if they should be blanketed. Please contact Irongate Equine Clinic with specific questions, we’d be glad to help you!
By Dr. Lisa Nesson