Agrowing horse-keeping trend is to blanket horses throughout the winter. Most often the decision to blanket a horse is the result of an emotional response by a well-intentioned owner. It has also become acceptable to blanket due to certain lifestyles chosen for horses.
However, it is important to recognize that in general the practice of blanketing horses is not necessary and at times blanketing or “overblanketing” may even be detrimental. When good horse-keeping practices are implemented the need to blanket becomes a rare exception.
The hair coat changing with the seasons is an obvious adaptation of the horse to its external climate. Not so obvious are the many smaller dynamic processes which occur within the skin and hair coat to maintain core temperature. These processes allow the hair coat to be dynamically engaged with the external environment, constantly adjusting and readjusting to maintain the horse’s comfort. As cooler fall weather arrives the horse metabolism adjusts incrementally by storing a layer of fatty tissue under the skin. This fatty layer acts as insulation, preparing the horse for the upcoming colder months. As a result horses in moderate to good body condition are well suited for winter conditions.
Horses need access to free-choice, quality forage, whether in the form of well-stocked winter pastures or hay, to keep warm. As temperatures drop, a horse offsets its need for warmth best by consuming more forage. Fermentation of fibre in the hind gut generates large amounts of heat which are returned to the horse. Although grains can be a source of energy, they provide marginal returns of heat to the horse.
Older horses in particular may need extra nutritional support. Ensure that water is readily available for it is crucial in supporting healthy digestion. Dental health is key to good digestion as well. Factors which support digestion indirectly strengthen the horse’s ability to internally warm itself.
Sufficient movement plays a significant role in a naturally healthy horse, especially in the winter when extra movement is needed to produce body heat. Horses provided with suitable spaces or those horses pawing on winter pastures move constantly, generating muscular heat and warming themselves. For this reason, horses with limited movement generally appear more comfortable with blanketing. Limited movement occurs when turnout spaces are inadequate or when horses are older, ill or compromised.
Wind or wet weather can tax the coat’s ability to do its job, so sheds, wind fences, and/or wooded areas are necessary to provide adequate shelter. Horses will move in and out of shelters as they choose, maintaining their own comfort.
When a horse is blanketed, the nature of its hair coat changes. As a result it will begin to appear as if the horse “needs” to continue to be blanketed. In part this is correct for, over time, blanketing disables the horse’s own natural abilities to stay warm.
Styles and shapes of horse blankets vary as much as styles and shapes of horses do so ill-fitting blankets are not uncommon. Ill-fitted blankets do not allow the neck, shoulders, and withers to move freely. This interference with movement causes the horse to compensate by shortening their stride and tightening their back. These changes can and do carry over into posture, carriage, and performance problems.
If one does choose to blanket, the horse needs supervision to ensure that fluxes to warmer daytime temperatures do not leave the horse uncomfortably warm, sweating or with colic. The horse’s own hair coat must remain dry and warm under the blanket. Additionally skin problems develop readily in the moist, warm environment created by “overblanketed” horses.