Winter Blanketing

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Written By Dr. Kate LeVasseur, DVM

The question always arises each winter whether to blanket or to not blanket your horse. As the temperature decreases, the layers of clothing increase. One would only assume this would also hold true for your horse, right?

There are many reasons to blanket your horse as well as many reasons not to blanket your horse. Horses have adapted to living in harsh winter conditions by having a thick winter hair coat that keeps them warm and dry. In nature, horses that weren’t able to withstand harsh winter conditions would die of starvation or be eaten by a predator. Today, there are actually only a few (yet valid) reasons to blanket a horse.

Horses that have been body clipped for show require extra layers to keep warm since their hair coat has been removed. Another, and probably more common reason to blanket, is older age. Many horses who didn’t require a blanket when they were younger benefit from the added warmth in their older age. As horses grow older, their ability to regulate their body temperature usually decreases. They are also unable to keep weight (body fat) during the winter, which normally would have provided an extra layer of insulation. The third, and least common, reason to blanket are horses who have never had the ability to keep warm for an unknown reason – similar to differences in humans, some people (and horses) always seem to be cold. These may be the horses you will find shivering in the pasture when the rest of the horses are fine.

Can blanketing be harmful or will it hurt horses to blanket if they don’t need to be blanketed otherwise? Yes. Improper use of blanketing can potentially leave the horse colder than if he had been left with no blanket. One of the ways a horse’s winter coat keeps them warm is by ‘fluffing’ up, the air space that it creates holds in warmth. By placing a blanket on the horse, the hair is flattened, and therefore removing this air space. A heavy blanket to make up for the lost heat is usually required, and once a horse is blanketed, they usually need continued blanketing throughout the winter because of the hair coat flattening.

Another problem we run into with blanketing is moisture. Many winter blankets are designed to be breathable, so if it is 10 degrees in the morning when you leave for work and then 70 degrees when you get home, the horse will have likely sweated underneath the blanket. Where it becomes a problem is when the moisture isn’t allowed to escape or the blanket hasn’t completely dried out and has been left on the horse when temperatures drop again. Two problems usually result from this – 1) continuous moisture and heat will lead to a skin infection that will need to be treated with antibiotics; and 2) the blanket is no longer helping the horse stay warm, but rather, is now creating cold (and wet) conditions.

In conclusion don’t assume your horse needs to be blanketed just because you are cold. There is certainly a time and a place for when winter blanketing is beneficial, but must be done in a mindful, diligent way.

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