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Blanketing Horses: A Comprehensive Guide to Winter Care

Updated: Apr 3

Horse in winter snow wearing a blanket

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.

Understanding Equine Thermoregulation

In colder environments, horses rely on a range of natural mechanisms to regulate their body temperature (thermoregulation) and stay warm. These adaptations are vital for their survival and comfort, ensuring they can thrive even in the face of chilly weather conditions. Let's delve into the fascinating ways horses maintain their warmth and protect themselves from the cold.

Digestive System and Feed

The digestive system of horses plays a crucial role in their ability to generate and maintain body heat, particularly during colder seasons. As robust and large animals, horses require significant amounts of feed to fuel their energy demands and provide warmth. Their digestive system is notably extensive, designed to efficiently process and store the proteins and carbohydrates essential for energy production.

Horses are classified as hindgut fermenters, a designation that underscores their unique digestive process. In this system, carbohydrates are fermented in the latter portion of the intestine, resulting in the generation of energy. This fermentation process is akin to a furnace within the horse's gut, with hay serving as the primary fuel source. The breakdown of carbohydrates releases heat, contributing to the horse's ability to regulate its body temperature.

During cold winter months, horses rely on this energy production mechanism to sustain themselves and combat the chill effectively. By continually metabolizing feed and harnessing the heat generated through digestion, horses can maintain their internal temperature within a comfortable range, ensuring their well-being even in harsh environmental conditions. Thus, understanding the intricate relationship between the equine digestive system and thermoregulation sheds light on the remarkable adaptability of these majestic animals to colder climates.

Horse Body Hair

horse with a thick coat may not need winter blanket

Horses possess a remarkable adaptation for coping with cold weather: their specially designed hair coats. These coats play a crucial role in helping horses maintain their body temperature above the surrounding environment in a highly specialized manner.

The horse's hair coat consists of two distinct layers, each with its own unique function. The outer layer comprises long, stiff guard hairs, which serve as a protective barrier against elements such as sweat and rainfall. These guard hairs shield the underlying soft, fluffy hairs from becoming wet, thereby preventing heat loss through moisture evaporation.

Beneath the guard hairs lies the undercoat, consisting of small, soft hairs that are pivotal for thermoregulation. This undercoat acts as insulation, trapping warm air close to the horse's body. As the horse's metabolism generates heat, this warmth is retained within the short, fluffy hairs of the undercoat, creating a layer of insulated air that helps regulate the horse's body temperature.

horses standing out in the winter storm without blankets on

Observing a horse standing stoically in cold weather without shivering or displaying signs of discomfort can be attributed to this remarkable adaptation. The thick coat of the horse, particularly evident in breeds like the Icelandic Pony, provides effective insulation against the cold, enabling them to withstand icy winter conditions without the need for additional blankets or artificial coverings.

In essence, the intricate layers of the horse's coat serve as a natural form of insulation, allowing them to thrive in cold climates by effectively regulating their body temperature and minimizing heat loss.

Horse Hydration

Horses rely heavily on water consumption to support their extensive metabolic processes and various bodily functions. Not only is adequate hydration essential for overall health, but it also plays a significant role in thermoregulation, particularly in colder environments.

Water possesses a high latent heat value, meaning it requires a substantial amount of energy to raise its temperature by even one degree Celsius. This characteristic is fundamental to understanding its role in thermoregulation. Essentially, water has a remarkable capacity for storing energy, making it an efficient medium for heat retention.

In cold weather conditions, horses utilize this property of water to their advantage. By consuming ample quantities of water, they effectively increase their body's thermal mass. This means that as the horse's body temperature naturally fluctuates due to metabolic processes and external factors, the stored energy in the water acts as a buffer, helping to maintain a stable internal temperature.

Additionally, water plays a vital role in facilitating metabolic processes essential for heat production within the body. As horses metabolize nutrients from their feed to generate energy, water is involved in numerous biochemical reactions, ensuring efficient energy production and utilization. Thus, adequate hydration not only supports thermoregulation directly but also indirectly by sustaining metabolic functions critical for heat generation.

Overall, the significant water intake by horses serves as a crucial component of their strategy for staying warm in cold weather. By harnessing the high latent heat value of water, horses can effectively store and utilize energy to maintain their body temperature within a comfortable range, ensuring their well-being even in chilly climates.

Horse Specific Anatomy

The unique anatomy of horses is finely tuned to optimize the distribution of blood flow throughout their bodies, ensuring efficient delivery of oxygen and nutrients to vital organs while conserving energy where it's most needed. This specialized circulatory system plays a crucial role in supporting the horse's overall health and performance.

One distinctive aspect of equine anatomy is the relatively small muscle mass present in their lower limbs compared to their massive body size. This characteristic means that less blood is required to supply these areas with oxygen and nutrients. Instead, the majority of the horse's blood volume is directed towards the vital organs, such as the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys, where it is needed most to sustain essential physiological processes.

By prioritizing blood flow to vital organs, horses ensure that these critical systems receive an ample supply of oxygen and nutrients, enabling them to function optimally. This allocation of resources is particularly important during periods of increased activity or stress when the demand for energy and oxygen is heightened.

Additionally, this specialized circulatory system helps horses conserve energy by minimizing blood flow to regions with lower metabolic demands, such as the lower limbs. By reducing blood flow to these areas, horses can allocate more energy resources to support essential bodily functions and activities, such as digestion, respiration, and circulation.

Overall, the specific anatomy of horses reflects an evolutionary adaptation finely tuned to meet the demands of their physiology and lifestyle. By efficiently distributing blood flow to vital organs and conserving energy where possible, horses can maintain optimal health and performance, whether at rest or engaged in strenuous activity.

Horse Fats

The presence of fats in the equine diet serves multiple essential functions, including energy storage, insulation, and contributing to thermoregulation, particularly in colder climates. Fats are a rich source of energy, containing more than 2.5 times the energy density per gram compared to carbohydrates or proteins. This high energy content is attributed to the numerous double bonds present in fat molecules, which allow them to store a significant amount of energy.

During periods of increased energy demands, such as cold weather conditions or strenuous activity, horses can tap into these fat reserves to fuel their metabolism and maintain optimal body temperature. The stored energy in fats provides a valuable source of heat production, helping to sustain the horse's internal warmth and support essential physiological processes.

Furthermore, fats also serve as a form of insulation, aiding in the retention of body heat and providing protection against the cold. Adipose tissue, where fats are primarily stored in the horse's body, acts as a natural insulator, helping to trap heat close to the body surface and prevent excessive heat loss to the surrounding environment. This insulation effect is particularly beneficial in colder climates, where maintaining body temperature is crucial for the horse's health and well-being.

In this way, the presence of fats on the horse's body plays a significant role in thermoregulation, contributing to the animal's ability to withstand cold weather conditions and maintain a stable internal temperature. By harnessing the energy stored in fats and leveraging their insulating properties, horses can effectively regulate their body temperature and thrive in a variety of environmental conditions.

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.

Helpful Tips in Determining When to Blanket

When not to blanket your horse:

As the above points clearly explain, 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:

horse pulling off his improperly fitted blanket in the snow

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.

horse wearing a heavyweight blanket

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.

horse with sweaty steam coming off its back

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!

Harnessing Acupressure to Naturally Warm Your Horse

In the quest to keep our equine companions comfortable during the colder seasons, we often explore various methods, one of which is acupressure. While acupressure is well-known for its preventative health benefits, it's worth noting that it can play a crucial role in supporting horses as the temperature drops.

Promoting Blood Flow and Warming Chi

Acupressure, when administered correctly, has the remarkable ability to enhance blood circulation in your horse's body. This improved blood flow aids in maintaining the warmth of their extremities and helps to activate the body's yang chi, which is the warming chi. This, in turn, contributes to a more comfortable and cozy horse during the winter.

Boosting Digestion and Metabolism

The digestive system is of paramount importance in thermoregulation for horses. By targeting specific acupressure points that stimulate digestion, we can help bolster their metabolic processes. A well-functioning digestive system ensures that the horse efficiently utilizes the nutrients from their food, translating into increased warmth from within.

Strengthening the Immune System

During the winter, horses can be susceptible to various pathogens and illnesses. Acupressure can be used to support the immune system, making it more robust and better equipped to fend off potential threats. This preventive measure can be especially vital to your horse's well-being during the colder months.

In an acupressure session, a skilled practitioner will focus on specific points that correlate with the organs and functions responsible for thermoregulation. By doing so, they optimize the horse's natural ability to generate warmth. Increased blood flow aids in supplying essential nutrients to the horse's limbs and facilitates the body's innate mechanisms for maintaining a comfortable temperature.

So, in addition to traditional methods like blanketing, consider acupressure as a complementary approach to ensuring your horse's warmth and well-being in the chill of winter. By incorporating this holistic practice into your horse's care routine, you can take a proactive step towards their comfort and health during the colder months.

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.

animal acupressure practitioner applying pressure to the acupoints on a horse

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