To blanket, or not to blanket?

Published 10:31 am Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Keeping horses comfortable, healthy in extreme cold conditions 

With the unusually cold weather upon us, questions and concerns may arise as to the best care for horses in cold weather. While horse lovers like to see their horses wrapped up and cozy in blankets and stalls on cold winter nights, the question to ask is, “Is this the best, healthiest way to care for horses in cold weather?”  

There are some problems that can arise from blanketing horses. Even the best fitting blankets have straps that can break or come loose and entangle a horse’s legs.  

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Another concern is the changes in temperature during the day. Often when we turn horses out in the morning, it can be as low as 20 degrees or colder. If we take the blanket off the horse will be cold.  

However if the blanket is left on, the horse can become hot and sweaty when the temperature climbs above 50 degrees in the afternoon. The horse then risks a chill as the temperature drops again before evening feeding. Few horse owners have the time to run outside, or take off from work, and change their horse’s blankets every two or three hours.  

While blanket manufacturers sell us on the idea that blankets are normal horse clothing, horses are more naturally equipped to handle much greater extremes in weather than most realize. Their natural habitat is the prairie and the steppes of Asia, which have much greater weather extremes than here in the Thermal Belt. Another thing to consider is that horses, unlike humans, are outdoor animals. They typically stay healthier when they are allowed to be outdoors and move around.  

However, if a horse is staying outside or not being blanketed, there are some things the owner should consider to help keep the horse warm and healthy during the cold weather months.  

  1. The horse must be allowed to gradually build up a resistance to the cold. By allowing the horse to stay out even at night during the fall and early winter months, the horse will grow a thick winter coat and become used to colder weather the way nature intended. A horse can quickly become ill if it is used to being kept indoors, blanketed or a warmer climate, and then suddenly turned out in cold, wet weather.
  2. It is important to be sure the horse has adequate feed. Plenty of grass hay is essential to keeping a horse warm. Many horse owners add a flake of alfalfa hay, a few alfalfa cubes soaked in water, or even some corn to their horse’s diet during the cold months. As always be sure to make feed changes gradually and be careful to not over feed alfalfa or corn.
  3. Provide an outdoor windbreak or shelter. Wild horses are able to move around and find natural windbreaks such as a grove of trees or a sheltered ravine. However, domesticated horses fenced in do not have that ability. A free access shelter in the pasture ideally allows the horse to use it as needed to escape the wind and/or wet conditions.
  4. Groom the horse regularly. Making sure the horse’s coat is in good condition and fluffed up will go a long way to keeping the horse warm. A good currycomb and/or stiff dandy brush used daily will help keep the coat in good condition and fluff it up enough to provide good insulation.
  5. Be sure the horse has adequate water. With water tanks freezing over, horses can be at risk of dehydration during the winter. A 1,000-pound horse typically drinks 5 to 15 gallons of water a day. A de-icer or heater for the horse’s water trough is a great help. Some horse owners use strong balls such as a soccer ball in the water tanks, to keep them from freezing across the entire surface. Horse owners can lower the water level about six to eight inches below the surface and place a couple of soccer balls in the tank. The horses push the balls out of the way to get to the water. As always, it is important to change the water regularly and keep the tank clean.
  6. Be sure the horse is properly cooled out and dry. Those thick winter coats can be a little more work if the horse gets sweaty when ridden. During the winter it is advisable to use either a blanket or cooler on the horse while cooling out after a ride. The horse’s coat should be completely dry and groomed until it is fluffy before the horse is turned out.
  7. If it is snowing the horse owner should check the horse’s hooves for ice balls, especially if the horse is wearing shoes. The ice balls should be cleaned out regularly as they can build up and not only make walking difficult, but can also put pressure on the horse’s soles.
  8. It is extremely important to take extra measures for older horses during the winter. Older horses are the exception to blanketing and turnout and should be observed for individual needs.

Some owners do not like to deal with a thick winter coat and will clip their horses or keep their horse’s coat thin for showing. These horses of course will need to be kept blanketed and indoors on cold winter nights.  

While nature has evolved horses to endure the extreme weather conditions found on the prairies or the steppes of Asia, it is also important to note that centuries of human influenced breeding has affected those abilities. Breeds such as Arabians are typically inclined toward warmer climates. Thoroughbreds are thinner skinned and have finer coats than cold-blooded horses and typically need more care.  

The horse owner can watch their horse to be sure it is not shivering. If the horse comes in for evening feed and is shivering, that can be an indication the horse needs to be kept in, needs better grooming, better nutrition or even blanketing. Beware of hypothermia and observe the horse to see if bringing it in and feeding it will quickly stop the shivering. If not, blanket the horse and call a veterinarian immediately.  

As always it is a good idea to check with a qualified veterinarian with questions, or to be certain of a horse’s individual needs.