Most horses are blanketed in the winter according to the personal principles of the owner. However, like any other management practice, blanketing horses has its rightful place and proper use. The decision to blanket the horse comes with advantages and disadvantages.
First, it is good to know that nature has provided the horse with extremely effective and efficient anatomical, physiological and behavioural mechanisms to adapt to cold weather.
It is important the horse be in adequate body condition when the winter cold arrives. Horses with a moderate body condition score of 5/9 have a sufficient layer of fat to stave off the cold temperatures. Adequate fat cover serves to both insulate the animal’s body from the cold, as well as provide adequate energy reserves. It is healthy, maybe even biologically advantageous to the horse, to lose weight over the cold winter months.
Feed and nutrition are also factors linked to the requirement of whether or not to blanket. Heat is a byproduct created through digestion of long-stem forages or hay. Gut activity provides the horse’s body with a considerable source of internal heat, warming the body from the inside out. An extra measure of hay can be an especially important thermoregulatory bridge during a cold spell or when weather conditions shift with a rapid drop in temperature.
Horses can further warm themselves through the heat generated during muscular activity and movement. A horse feeling chilled will often appear to be restless or unsettled and will become physically active in an attempt to benefit from the warmth of muscular movement. The advantage of movement to the horse is somewhat compromised when horses are kept in small paddocks, turnout areas and confined to small winter drylots. In these environments the horse lives a fairly sedentary life, requiring little movement to forage. This is in contrast to the continuous movement often seen of horses left to paw on well-stocked snow-covered pastures.
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Certainly, the healthiest solution for the horse during the winter season is to allow it to grow a long winter coat and provide it with appropriate cold-season nutrition, freedom to move and shelter from the wind and wet into which the horse can easily move in and out of. Cold weather and snow are not problematic for the typical healthy horse.
Horse owners choose to blanket their horses for a number of reasons. Blanketing the horse changes the nature of its hair coat and the changes happen surprisingly quick. The density and/or thickness of the hair coat is reduced and the general length of the hair coat is decreased. This effect is often utilized to reduce the horse’s winter hair coat for showing and performance purposes. The practice of short clipping the entire hair coat in horses or body clipping has become a popular practice to further manage the winter coat. Under these conditions the blanket becomes necessary to maintain the horse’s comfort as its own source of natural warmth and protection is no longer available.
Within a short time of blanketing the horse’s hair coat begins to lose its loft. Lofting is a unique ability of the horse’s hair coat to “puff up.” The physiological process is called piloerection and increases the air content within the hair coat. The loft in a horse’s hair coat traps and warms air next to the horse’s body, insulating and retaining heat, like a duvet quilt. This process requires muscular activity at the level of the hair follicle and like all muscular activity it needs to be active to be strengthened and maintained — use it or lose it. The lack of loft in the hair coat of a horse blanketed through the winter will be in striking contrast to the loft of a horse that has spent the winter unblanketed.
Under certain circumstances, blanketing can be a welcome addition to the care of a horse, especially those horses that are struggling to cope with the added stress of cold weather. These horses could be ill and/or compromised. They may lack body condition for various reasons or perhaps may have been imported from a warmer climate and have not had time to acclimatize. Keep in mind that it does not take very long before a blanketed horse begins to rely on the blanket for warmth, often necessitating that the horse remain blanketed for the duration of the cold season.
If the decision is made to blanket the horse for the winter, then blanket management must be intelligently maintained to constantly adjust for proper blanket fit and weather changes. Both ill-fitting blankets and overblanketing can be quite problematic for the horse, even detrimental to its health.
The unforgiving tightness and rubbing of an ill-fitting blanket causes hair loss, rub sores and over time pressure sores, lack of circulation and structural harm to the neck, withers and shoulders. These annoyances and restrictions may appear as coldness to touch, musculoskeletal stiffness, choppy strides and/or disjointed movement and soreness in the horse. It can be difficult to connect the symptoms to the blanketing without a detailed examination of the blanket’s fit. Snug-fitting blanket edges while the horse is standing can become quite restrictive when the horse is in motion, or lowering its head to eat. If the horse is consistently blanketed, the blanket’s fit will need ongoing and often daily assessment.
Overblanketing creates trouble for both the horse’s metabolism and health of the skin. When a horse overheats under a blanket it has limited means to cool itself and the added warmth and moisture from sweating makes the skin vulnerable to fungal and bacterial infections.
It is important to remember that if a horse is to be blanketed for a reasonable period of time or a complete season, the coat growth will be compromised. Therefore the decision to properly blanket a horse requires a prudent approach, due diligence, and often a lot of monitoring and work.