Once the outside temperature hits 50 degrees, I’m piling on layers of turtlenecks, sweaters and coats, but my horses won’t have blankets unless it’s below zero, there is windchill in the single digits or there is some kind of precipitation produced.
Though I may feel the chill of a 30 degree day, horses are quite comfortable in cold temperatures. This is assuming the horse is in good health and at a good weight and has plenty of hay and water available. If any one of those prerequisites is missing, a horse will need blanketing more often, or with more layers.
The argument against blanketing that always comes up is that it’s not natural. Horses survive in the wild without blankets. Yes, they do, but not all of them. A horse will not die because it wasn’t wearing a blanket, but in order to survive cold and wet and wind, it will burn calories and if there isn’t enough food around to replace those calories, the horse eventually will perish.
Horses do grow a luxurious winter coat that can be several inches long. The hairs will stand up as the temperature drops so that cold air is kept farther away from the horse’s skin. When the temperature rises, the hairs flatten down allowing heat to dissipate. This means horses can get away with the “I’m not fat, I’m fluffy” punchline.
Wind and wet are detrimental to the horse’s ability to keep warm. Wind cuts through the hair coat and moisture flattens it allowing cold to penetrate to the skin. Horses shiver, just like people do when they are cold. Shivering burns calories. Burning extra calories means the horse will lose weight and be less able to keep itself warm the next time it’s bitterly cold.
Extra hay certainly helps keep a horse warm. Not because the horse will lie in it and snuggle, but because it will eat it, feuling an internal furnace. Even with a bale of hay in front of it, a horse will still get cold with wind or precipitation.
A horse that has shelter may not use it or stay inside during inclement weather. Horses don’t have access to the Weather Channel which would tell them that they better not go outside and get wet because the temperature is going to drop later.
Deciding when, or if, to blanket a horse is the difficult part. Using a blanket is easy. Modern horse blankets are lightweight, colorful, comfortable for the horse to wear, waterproof and are found in every price range. Notice I did not include “indestructable” on the list of assets.
Blanket durability is described in terms of the “denier,” which is the coarseness of the fiber used to construct the outer shell. In theory, a blanket that is 1,600 denier, would outlast a 600 denier blanket. However, horses, by rolling on the ground, rubbing against tree trunks, biting, kicking and otherwise roughhousing, can shred a 1600 blanket. It just takes them longer.
Some horse owners will clip the horse’s winter coats in order to keep the horse from getting overheated when in exercise. Horses that stay in training through the winter are in danger from not only overheating, but also getting chilled if they sweat during a workout. It can take hours for a sweaty horse to dry in the Winter leaving the horse vulnerable to cold. A body clipped horse must be blanketed constantly through the winter.
Each horse has individual needs. Rocket, my 31-year-old horse gets a blanket more often than Dundee, my 12-year-old horse. They both get plenty to eat and have access to shelter but Rocket doesn’t tolerate the cold as well as Dundee and sometimes Dundee hogs the shelter and won’t let Rocket come in.
Blanketing, like politics, will always be subject to differences in opinion. Some think blankets are for sissies, others swaddle horses until they end up like Randy “I can’t put my arms down!” Parker from “A Christmas Story.” I tend to go a minimal but necessary route, letting my horses stay in their natural state unless the weather finds a way to use subterfuge.