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Does My Horse Need A Blanket?

Fox modelling his gorgeous Norwegian winter coat. It’s rated for at least -50C. He made it himself.

To blanket, or not to blanket, that is the question.

There is so much information out there about blanketing horses, some supporting blanketing, and some supporting not. Each side is equally convincing. I think there is absolutely no point in picking sides. There is so MUCH more involved than the simple question does my horse need a blanket? There really isn’t a one size fits all answer.

I like to go with the least amount of human intervention needed. I like that my horse can self-regulate, and has the oportunity to live naturally through the cycles of nature. So I won’t blanket unless I see a real reason for it. I do realize that horses are individuals with different needs. So here are a couple of key things to look at that can help you make the decision about your horse. What kind of shelter does your horse have? Does your horse require a coat change to be comfortable doing his job? What is the age, breed, and overall body condition of your horse? How does your individual horse react to the current weather in your location? Finally have you asked your horse?

What kind of shelter does your horse have?

Currently my horse’s shelter under trees during any kind of bad weather. There are some very old spruce trees growing on a hill in their paddock that provide total protection from wind, rain and snow. That being said they did have the option for a sheltered building in the past. Unfortunately, they consistently picked the old trees. After many attempts to lure them inside I eventually converted the shelter into a hay shed. So given the option, my horses choose a more natural way of living. I am determined though and am planning to build another shelter in a different location, and positively reinforce it… but that’s another post. Why is this relevant? Well, it got me thinking that letting the horses live a species appropriate lifestyle is likely the best first option. If that isn’t possible then we must improvise to keep our horses happy and healthy. 

Overall, our horses should have some form of shelter. Now the type of shelter that we are providing is part of what dictates how much help our horses need to stay comfortable in the elements. One of the things that determines the coat that our horses grow is sunlight. A horse kept in a barn with artificial lighting will grow a different coat compared to a horse kept outside 24/7. The horse that is kept outside will grow his coat based on the natural environmental light.

What causes a horse to grow a winter coat?

The growth of a winter coat in horses is triggered by an increase in melatonin. As the days get shorter, and there is less sunlight, the horses produce more melatonin and grow thicker coats. Artificial light reduces the amount of melatonin produced and keeps the coat shorter and thinner. A blanket is a must for horses kept under artificial light. On the other hand, it is very difficult to correctly fit a blanket for my horse Fox, it always gives him uncomfortable pressure points, or rub marks. So I choose to keep him outside 24/7 and he grows the perfect blanket for himself. Fox’s coat causes him zero discomfort, other than maybe when he’s shedding in the spring.

What is your horse’s job?

We also need to look at the horse’s daily routine. A horse ridden in a heated indoor arena, or living in a heated barn is going to require a different coat compared to a horse that lives and works outside. The kind of work that the horse does will also make a difference in his coat requirements. A horse that does a lot of hard work that causes him to sweat will need a thinner coat compared to a horse that only does light work. Repeatedly sweating in a thick coat can cause a lot of skin issues, as well as increase the chance of the horse getting a chill. All of these factors help you decide if altering your horse’s coat would make him more comfortable.

There are many options when it comes to altering a horse’s coat, one of the most common is clipping. The clip that you choose for your horse, and the climate that you live in will dictate how much of a blanket the horse requires. You can also choose to house your horse under artificial light. Deciding on which blanket to use, what size, brand etc. is also challenging, and beyond this blog post. Two of the most important things when it comes to choosing a blanket are fit, and right weight. So why is all of this important info for deciding to blanket? Making alterations to the natural cycle of a horse’s coat means we have to provide an alternative “coat” to keep him comfortable and healthy in his living environment.

Age, breed, and body weight is definitely something to consider.

The next thing to look at is the age, breed, and overall condition of the horse. Some horses just do better in certain climates. My fjord cross Fox, fairs very well in -50C weather. My sister’s Arabian cross can get a little shivery, and occasionally requires a blanket. We could just look at these two breeds and decide that Fjords were bred to live in cold northern countries, and Arabians were bred to live in hot countries, so of course they will handle the cold differently, but we also need to leave room for other factors.

Not all Fjords are warm when its cold, and not all Arabians shiver in the cold. This is where age, and body condition comes in. My Fjord is eleven and chubby, my sister’s Arabian is twenty-three and thin. Older horses naturally have trouble staying as warm as younger horses, and fatter horses typically are warmer than skinnier horses. So, if your horse is thin, or old he may require a blanket sooner than a younger horse, even if he has a full winter coat. 

Your horse’s individual reaction to his current environment is a great way to decide if he needs a blanket.

Finally, probably the most important factor to look at is how your horse reacts. Fox has only required a blanket once in his life. It was during a freak snowstorm in August a few years ago. He easily gets too hot and loves to lay down and sleep in water during the summer.

On this particular day he had decided to take a nap in a large puddle of water in his paddock. His coat became fully saturated. Shortly after he got up, the temperature plummeted and a freak snowstorm rolled in. His soaked thin summer coat wasn’t enough protection, and I found him shivering under the spruce tree. All of the other horses were dry and fine, but he had gotten a chill. I prefer not to blanket my horses, but if they are showing signs that they need it, I absolutely do it. Their needs come before my ideals, so Fox got a blanket.

The horses catching a few rays of sun on a chilly -35C day. All without blankets, and all protected by their natural coats.

The signs you should look for to know if your horse needs a blanket to protect him from the environment.

I usually judge my horse’s reaction to cold weather based on how much their coat is standing up, how much they are moving around, how tucked their tail is, and how much shivering they are doing. It is really hard not to just assume that they feel the same way as we do about the weather. It’s so important to remember that they were made for this weather and are typically fully equipped for it. Even my sister’s Arabian has made it through days of -50C with no blanket and zero shivering. All he required was a little extra feed.  

I’m mostly focusing on cold weather blanketing, but we can’t forget that our horses may also need blankets to protect them from rain and bugs. Fly sheets can be very helpful. It really depends on the bugs that are around, and the horse’s individual reactions to the bugs. Fox is not typically bothered by bugs, and other than the odd bite he rarely needs more than a daily fly spray (honestly its more for my peace of mind than him actually needing it). A friend of mine has a Hanoverian who is incredibly allergic to bug bights, and requires a fly sheet all summer. His whole body will swell up with little bumps, and his eyes will swell to the point where he can barely open them.

If you live in a particularly rainy location, rain sheets are also very handy. It doesn’t take much rain or wind to give a horse a chill, even one with a natural coat. So bugs and weather are huge factors in deciding whether or not to blanket.

I love dressing Fox up!

I love buying coolers and dressing Fox up….

Of course I can’t forget to mention coolers… Now I will admit I have problem… I absolutely LOVE buying coolers for Fox. I don’t really need them… but I really like dressing him up, and putting one on him if he has even a tiny bit of sweat… It’s definitely more for me than him. I also like them because they are temporary. He only wears them long enough to keep him warm as he dries out.

Taking the guess work out of things…we can just ask our horses.

Finally, just a fun side note. Have you asked your horse if he wants a blanket? There was a study conducted in Norway to see if horses could learn to communicate with people using symbols. The researchers used three symbols indicating that a horse wanted a blanket put on, taken off, or left unchanged. The horses were able to learn to indicate their preferences and were able to judge for themselves what they would like based on the weather. This was a small study with only 23 horses, but it would be interesting to try it with more horses. (Mejdell, Buvik, Jorgensen, Boe, 2016). How nice would it be to not have to guess how our horses are feeling? Although I would be pretty sad if Fox said no to a cooler…. 

I hope this blog post is helpful in making the decision to blanket… or not to blanket. I will always be an advocate for the most natural way. That being said in this day and age when we have so many options for ensuring optimal health for our horses, it is important to keep an open mind and truly pay attention to the needs of our best friends. 

Have a lovely day,

Courtney 

References: 

Cecilie M. Mejdell, Turid Buvik, Grete H.M. Jorgensen, Knut E. Boe, Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 184, 2016, Pages 66-73, accessed July 30, 2021. www.sciencedirect.com

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