One of the most discussed subjects among equine owners is when to blanket your horse and when not to. Many equine owners suggest not to blanket your horse, giving specific reasons and arguments. Meanwhile, many are inclined towards blanketing the horse, especially the sports horses.
You might be having your perception regarding this subject, and this might change after reading the science written in this blog. If you are looking for a direct answer, whether to blanket or not, then the direct answer is 'No.'
Yes, in general, you should not blanket your horse. Horses are sturdy, strong animals that generate more than enough heat to survive even in cold weather. After all, they survive in the wild without the help of humans. But there are specific conditions in which you should blanket them. Before going through those situations, let's see the mechanism of how horses keep themselves warm in cold weather.
What keeps the horse warm?
Nature has bestowed horses with great mechanisms to cope with the cold environment and maintain their thermoregulation. Have a look at some of these mechanisms:
1. Digestive System and Feed:
Horses are strong and large animals, so they need a large amount of feed to provide their body with the energy and heat they need. That is, horses have a long and large digestive system that consumes, processes, and stores a large number of proteins and carbohydrates. Moreover, horses are hindgut fermenters, which means that they ferment carbohydrates in the last part of the intestine and generate energy. It means that the horse gut is like a furnace, and hay is the fuel. Resultantly, horses use this energy to help themselves survive in the cold winter.
2. Horse Body Hair:
Specially designed horses' hair coats help them maintain their body temperature above the surrounding temperature in a very specialized way.
Let's talk about the layers of the horse coat! Your strong friend has two layers of hair; one is long, stiffer hairs that act as guard hairs, while the other is small soft undercoat hair that plays the main role in thermoregulation.
These guard hairs protect the body from sweat and rainfall and protect the underline soft fluffy hairs from getting wet. The undercoat has a specialized function in keeping the body warm by maintaining warm, steady air just above the horse body. The body generates heat through metabolism, and this heat is entrapped in this short fluffy hair coat. This warm air just above the body maintains thermoregulation.
When you see a horse standing straight in the cold weather and wonder why he does not shiver and feel the cold like we do, this is the answer to your question. You can see many breeds like the Icelandic Pony stand in the icy winter weather without blankets due to thick coat.
3. Horse Hydration:
Horses drink a lot of water to support their large body metabolism and other body functions. This large quantity of water also helps in thermoregulation, but how?
Water is a high latent heat value. What does it mean? It means that water requires high energy to increase its one-degree temperature, making water capable of storing a high amount of energy. So, the horse also increases its body temperature by storing a large amount of energy in the form of water in cold weather.
4. Horse Specific Anatomy:
Horses have specific anatomy that helps supply more blood to the vital organs, which means more energy to them. Horses have little muscle mass in their lower limbs, so they need less amount of blood there, and most of the blood (energy) flows to the vital organs.
5. Horse Fats:
Fats have many double bonds that store more than 2.5 times energy (heat). In addition, they provide insulation from surrounding cold weather. In this way, fat on the horse body plays a part in thermoregulation.
The main purpose of all the above discussion is to make you realize that horses have a highly developed thermoregulatory system, and they do not need a blanket in general. But in very specific conditions, they do need blankets.
Let's explore further!
When to not blanket your horse: As above points explain clearly that in general horse thermoregulatory system is enough to support the horse body in cold weather. In this heading, let's see the common times when there is no need for a blanket:
The external temperature is normal or above 10 degrees F.
It is not rainy.
Body condition scoring is 4 or above (1-9 point score).
The horse has a natural winter coat.
If your horse moves to a warmer climate.
Your horse has access to shelter to block the winter wind.
When to blanket your horse:
Following are some of the times when you must blanket your horse:
When the external temperature decreases below 5 degrees F.
After exercise, horses should be covered with a blanket, especially in cold weather.
When your horse is not having a normal winter hair coat.
Weak or senior horses.
When it is rainy, and the fluffy hair coat is wet.
Horses have some diseases, specially hypothermic horses, which must be covered with blankets.
When your horse is clipped.
If your horse is moved to a colder climate mid-winter and it doesn't have time to grow a winter coat.
Guidelines about blanketing:
After learning the specific conditions to blanket your horse, let's learn some important points about the blankets:
What should be the size of the blanket?
The size of the blanket is very important, and you may need to use the trial and error method here. The question is why size is so important. The thing is that if you put a small and tight blanket, it will push pressure on the muscles, making the horse uncomfortable, reluctant to move, and sweat more. But if the blanket is loose, the cold air will flow in, and your friend will feel the cold, and the blanket losses its purpose.
When your horse is standing square, measure from the center of his chest around the widest part of the shoulder to the point of the buttocks. This length will be the horse blanket size. This measurement will be easy if you have someone to help you hold the measuring tape. Also, be aware that some brands have discrepancies in the sizes, so its always best to make sure this measuring method or another is what they suggest.
If this is your horses first time wearing a blanket, you need to make sure he is comfortable wearing it in his stall before putting him outside with it. Sometimes the straps and flapping of the blanket will bother a horse not used to it. Also, be sure to secure the straps correctly based on which type of blanket you use.
What should be the material of the blanket?
The material of the blanket varies from the reason you are using it. For example, you are using a blanket in the rainy season, then the blanket should be made of parachute material. On the other hand, if you are using a blanket in case of hypothermia, you should use a thick blanket made up of polyester-like material.
Some horse owners even have multiple blankets for different weather conditions! Just like how we have our fall jackets for the cool fall days and our nice warm winter jackets for the cold days, horse blankets have different weights as well. Weight is based off the amount of polyester fill for insulation. Fill can range from 0 grams in a lightweight blanket to up to 400 grams in heavyweight blankets.
Lightweights are best to use in "warmer" conditions from 20-30 degrees F. Mediumweights can be used in "cooler" conditions from 10-25 degrees F. Heavyweights can be used in the "cold" conditions from 10- 20 degrees F and anything under that 10 degrees F.
Remember: Sweaty Horse Under Blankets = Cold!
The blanket must not cause the animal to sweat otherwise horse will feel cold. If you notice steam coming off the blanket or near the neck/withers, your horse is too hot. Getting sweaty can reduced the effectiveness of the blanket. Its kind of like how you get hot when working stalls and you shed. If you kept your jacket on, it would be moist from sweat. After stall work, the moist jacket will start to make you feel cold and not keep you warm. This works the same way with horses!
So, when to blanket your horse is a debatable question. In the light of the above discussion, you have to ask yourself the reason for it. Based on that, you should decide the size, material, and duration to blanket your horse. You know your horse the best!
Did you know acupressure can warm the body naturally?
Yes! While acupressure is always a great option for preventative health, it can also be beneficial to support the horse in the cold months. Acupressure increases the blood flow, supports the yang chi (the warming chi), increases digestion for metabolism, supports the immune system to prevent pathogens, and more!
As mentioned above, the horses digestive system is very important for thermoregulation. So, the practitioner will support these organs and their functions during a session. Each point used will be beneficial to the horse. Increasing the blood flow helps the body supply the nutrients to the limbs and help warm the body naturally.
Interested in a session? Book one today to help support your horses natural ability to stay warm and prevent the cold from entering the body.