As temperatures drop I see a question often asked on social media. Should I blanket my horse? Like most animal care questions there isn’t one simple answer. There are several important considerations that will help you make the decision to blanket or not, and under what circumstances.
Age and health
Your horse’s age is one of the first considerations. Young horses in good weight are hardy and can withstand both heat and cold throughout the year. Most foals are born in Spring and Summer and by Winter have a dense coat to protect them from elements. As long as your horses live primarily outside, they will adapt to the changing temperature through the year and grow an appropriate coat. For this to happen, they must be exposed to natural light and not kept in a barn, as photo periods — the changing hours of daylight — trigger seasonal shedding. Young, healthy horses rarely need to be blanketed.
Old horses may be underweight or compromised by health issues. Due to dental deterioration, they may be on a diet of pellets, mash, or grain rather than hay. See the Diet section to understand why this is important. They may not grow an adequate coat during the Winter or be robust enough to stay comfortable in low temperatures. They may not be as active as when they were young, and joint stiffness may make it difficult for them to lie down and get up. For these reasons, old horses may need blanketing and other support to keep them healthy during the Winter.
Breed and type
My Norwegian Fjords are a drafty pony type able to withstand much colder temperatures than we experience here in Northern California. Northern Europe has long, dark, extremely cold Winters with snow and ice on the ground for months. Such breeds have a thick body with a good layer of fat and a dense Winter coat. It is very unlikely that a healthy Fjord or similar breed would need a blanket; in fact, I have seen some funny pictures of these horses whose owners tried to blanket them, only to find said blanket torn to shreds and lying in the mud later!
A lighter breed like the Thoroughbred may have little fat and hair, so may have a harder time staying comfortable in very cold temps. A lot depends on age and health as already mentioned, but also on bloodlines. Even within a breed some will be lighter or heavier bodied or have more of a thick coat.
Horses have a very efficient internal heating system which enables them to keep warm in Winter. The processing of hay in the digestive system produces heat, so providing plenty of hay at this time is critical. If your horse is an easy keeper, a lower calorie, higher fiber hay is a good choice. If your horse is elderly and toothless and cannot eat hay, s/he will not be able to produce heat very well, so may need additional support in the form of shelter and/or blanketing.
Your setup will affect your horses’ ability to stay comfortable in Winter. Ideally, they will have shelter such as a barn, run-in shed, or other structure to stand under or inside of as needed. Most horses have the sense to regulate their own comfort as long as they have the opportunity. I say most because, if a horse has lived his or her whole life in a restricted indoor environment, they may not have developed the habits of those who live outside or have outdoor access at all times.
Be aware that a bully in the herd may prevent others from using the shelter. I have seen this many times over the years. The barn owner sets up a shelter large enough for the whole group, then that one horse stands under it and chases everyone else away! I saw one bully in a herd, a Percheron gelding, guard the water trough and prevent others from drinking. That was a pretty extreme example, but it reminds us to be aware of our horses’ personalities and how they get along together. Such a horse should be separated from others if they can’t get along with anyone, or housed with another horse with whom they are compatible.
Healthy horses will grow a plush Winter coat with amazing powers of insulation. They may be wet, muddy, or dusted in snow, but dig your fingers under the fur and you will find the skin to be dry and warm. It’s an ancient and efficient system.
Unfortunately for those who ride heavily or competitively during the Winter, that coat can be a problem, causing the horse to sweat and overheat, then need to be cooled and dried before going back outside into the cold. Because of this, some owners choose to clip their horses in Winter, removing the insulating system and making blanketing a necessity. If you choose to clip, just be aware that you will have to maintain your horse’s comfort manually in low temperatures.
How blankets/rugs work and don’t
As humans we tend to anthropomorphize, that is, we apply human needs and tendencies to animals. We live in houses and wear clothes, so we think horses should too. In many cases, this kind of husbandry can cause more problems than it prevents.
The horse’s coat works like insulation, standing up in cold weather to keep snow, rain, and mud away from the skin. This is why horses in Winter coat look fluffy or “poofed.” This isn’t just cute, it serves an important purpose. When you put a blanket on a horse, it pushes the hair down, disabling the natural warming system. This is why it is so important to only use blankets as needed and not on young, healthy horses in a full Winter coat.
Ultimately you will be the judge of whether or not your horse is comfortable and need to wear a blanket. My friends who blanket say their horses will actually shiver in cold wet weather! You know your horse best. I hope this information helps you to keep your horses comfortable during the Winter. Happy New Year!