By Tom Guthrie and Dr. Karen Waite
As winter progresses onward and bitterly cold temperatures seem to hover over a region for days on end, horse owners are often faced with a question of whether or not to attempt to provide extra protection such as blanketing for their horse.
Answer, there is no simple answer. It really comes down to assessing each individual horse’s needs.
No question about it, most horses have the ability to grow a winter coat that will keep them sufficiently warm in the coldest temperatures. Winter hair growth is primarily triggered by change in day length or photoperiod. This starts taking place around late summer. External temperatures will also play a role in the process of winter hair growth.
In contrast, blankets can be very useful for some including: horses that are sick, thin, very young or geriatric. Additionally, horses that have recently moved to Michigan from a warmer climate or horses that continue to work and/or are shown throughout the winter that have not had the opportunity to grow a full winter coat will likely need the extra protection that blankets can provide.
Consider the following factors to help with making an informed decision on whether or not to let the coat do the work before providing your horse with a blanket.
1. Hair coat – Winter hair provides protection by standing or “fluffing up” which traps the body heat and therefore provides warmth to the horse. If you blanketed your horse early or throughout the fall, it is a good possibility that a winter hair coat is not fully developed and hair will be shorter than that of a horse that was left unblanketed.
2. Housing – Horses do a relatively good job of withstanding even the harshest of winter conditions. In some cases, much to our disapproving, horses may elect not to use the shelter provided, choosing to stand out in the middle of a snow storm with their hindquarters to the wind.
However, it is still important that horses have access to some sort of shelter from rain/freezing rain and wind. Rain/freezing rain can be the most concerning of the two. If the hair coat gets wet and the hairs flatten, this decreases the insulating factor of the hair, requiring more energy to regulate body temperature for the horse to stay warm.
3. Feed and Water source - Forages such as hay are excellent at increasing the heat increment within the body when digested by the horse. Therefore, increasing levels of hay or fiber fed can be an advantageous management practice when attempting to help horses regulate body temperature in colder temperatures. Furthermore, make sure that there is access to fresh, clean water at all times.
4. Other consideration: Keep in mind that if you choose to start utilizing a blanket for your horse, the blanket has the potential to flatten the hair coat causing it to lose insulating ability. This may result in blanket duty for the remainder of the season. If choosing to provide your horse with a blanket, consider if the blanket is waterproof or not.
Remember: There may be no simple answer. However, observation of the horse’s behavior and evaluating other factors (hair coat, age, shelter accessibility, feed, etc.) relevant to the respective situation may increase your confidence that your horse can withstand harsh winter conditions with appropriate management.