When the weather feels chilly I find myself blanketing horses as if they were kids walking to school. It just makes me feel warmer to have my horses layered up with all the expensive blankets I've bought for them!
But the truth is, horses have very different temperature regulation needs than humans, so blanketing horses based on how you feel might not actually be right for them. Fortunately there's a simple way to decide whether to put the blanket on that has nothing to do with how cold my own fingers and toes are!
All you have to think about are these 3 things: Weather, Shelter, How Fuzzy?
1. Weather for Blanketing Horses
Rain or Snow?
Most horses are very comfortable in brisk (but above freezing) temperatures as long as they are dry. If you've got precipitation such as rain, even a drizzle, or snow that could melt on their warm backs and they don't have any way to avoid getting wet, consider a blanket.
Horses that are allowed to grow a full haircoat use their fluffy winter fur to trap warm air close to their skin like an insulated jacket. If there are strong winds, the warm air can get blown out leaving them feeling chill. For this reason, you will see many pastured or wild horses standing with their butts to the wind or each horse behind a tree trunk in this manner. If you've got strong cold winds blowing that your horse can't hide from, you might want to blanket.
Temperatures for Blanketing Horses
If temperatures are at or below freezing, horses might need some extra attention to stay warm. On of the main ways horses thermoregulate is by eating and fueling their digestive fire. Giving your horse extra calories when it's cold out can be one of the most effective ways to help him stay warm.
Enhanced winter nutritional needs are well addressed in this article by StableManagement.com, which says: "As well as expending energy simply keeping warm when it's cold, horses use more energy working when it is wet and muddy because of the extra effort involved in pulling their feet out of the mud, and the reduced ability to maintain body heat with a wet coat."
Of course, creating mud free paddocks would help significantly as well. Once they've adjusted to the cold outside temperatures, horses are generally more comfortable if they remain at their acclimatized temperature vs. warming up and then having to reacclimatize. Bear in mind though that temperatures can be considerably colder at night. If your temperatures drop to below freezing at night and are warmer during the day, then your horse might enjoy a blanket at night.
2. Access to Shelter
The type of shelter and access to shelter that your horse makes a huge difference in how well he thermoregulates on his own. If you horse lives out 100% of the time and has access to the natural shelter of trees and terrain, then he might be able to use that to his advantage to avoid getting cold. If he is in a pasture or paddock with limited movement or lack of terrain and trees, perhaps he has a run-in shelter or loafing shed? A three sided shelter is typically all a horse needs to keep himself warm through almost any weather condiditons. If you have the option, it's best to face the shelter's open side away from the prevailing winds.
Is there more than one horse sharing the shelter or shelters? If so, keep an eye on them to make sure someone's not being left out in the rain. Often, if horses are fed in their shelters, the dominant horse will claim the space for their own leaving the low horse on the totem pole out in the rain. In short, if your horse has access to adequate shelter in his living area and has had time to adjust to the weather conditions, then he might not need a blanket.
3. How fuzzy? etc...
Blanketing horses depends a lot on the simple fact of fuzziness. Your horse's hair is his weapon against the cold. If he's not fuzzy, then he's not warm. If you've blanketed and/or stabled your horse to keep his coat short and clean, then for sure cover him up when he goes out in the elements. If you've clipped your horse, especially over his back and hips, then he will need an insulated blanket to protect him from the cold. What breed is your horse? If he's a thin skinned thoroughbred with fine hair, he may get cold more easily than his neighbor, the Norwegian Fjord whose features aren't even visible under her fluffy nordic "sweater."
If you use the Body Condition Scoring system, how does your horse rate? A skinnier horse has a harder time keeping warm than does a fuller-figured equine. While we don't advocate for obesity, a little extra weight can be useful in cold weather. Consider blanketing, and perhaps increasing feed, for a horse that's going into winter with a BCS below 5. And the last consideration for blanketing horses is age: if you have a senior horse then you can lean a little more toward the "do I feel cold?" side of the decision making scale. Senior horses typically have a harder time maintaining weight and thermoregulating than their younger pasturemates. Also, while most horses don't mind feeling a little chilly, cold and wet weather will cause the arthritic senior horse more discomfort.
So, don't feel shy about blanketing your old horses, but check regularly by shoving your arm under the blanket at the withers to make sure they aren't getting too warm. The last thing you want is for your senior to get sweaty under her blanket and then get chilled when the sun goes down.
Have a blanketing tip to share? We'd love your feedback in the comments below!