To Blanket Or Not To Blanket Your Horse

Courtesy of SmartPak

Your horse’s coat may be smarter than you think! Because your horse was designed to spend his days roaming outside, he is naturally equipped with tools to keep himself warm when the temperatures start cooling down. Here, we’ll take a look at what your horse does to stay warm, and why that may not always be enough.

In response to the fading sunlight, your horse’s body starts producing his winter coat as soon as the days start getting shorter. He begins to grow his longer, thicker winter coat in July, shedding the shorter, thinner summer coat in October. That winter coat has longer and coarser hairs than his summer coat, and he uses them to keep himself warm by fluffing them up to trap heat. The individual hairs stand up rather than lying flat against the skin, which traps warm air close to his body and insulates him from the cold.

Along with using this thick hair coat to stay warm from the outside, your horse also uses calories to keep himself warm from the inside. His body ferments roughage in the hindgut, which creates heat that helps maintain his core temperature, which is why many horse owners feed more hay in the winter. However, even your horse’s full winter coat and normal calorie intake may not be enough to keep him warm all winter, depending on his body’s lower critical temperature or LCT. Your horse’s lower critical temperature is the lowest temperature at which he can maintain his core body temperature without using additional energy. Once the temperature outside gets below that lower critical temperature, his hair coat and normal calorie intake alone aren’t enough to keep him warm.

The lower critical temperature of an individual horse will depend on the temperatures that he’s accustomed to, the amount of body insulation he has (such as the length of his hair coat and the amount of body fat), and whether he lives inside or outside. That’s why even horses with a full winter coat can sometimes benefit from a blanket!

Deciding to blanket your horse depends on five factors: his coat, his living situation, his digestive health and age, his body condition, and the lowest temperature at which he can keep himself warm.

That’s why, like most things in the horse world, the short answer to the age-old debate of whether or not to blanket is “it depends.” Every horse is an individual, and the decision to blanket should be based on their unique needs (and not just because their owner is cold!).

There are five key factors that play a role in how your horse stays warm, and we’ll help you understand how each one impacts the decision to blanket your horse.

Hair Coast

Shorter periods of daylight trigger horses to grow longer, coarser winter coats. When it gets chilly, the hairs stand on end to trap warm air close to the body, insulating the horse from the cold. Horses with a full winter coat are likely to be OK au naturel. Horses that are clipped or have sleek “show coats” will definitely need a blanket to stay warm.

Living Situation

Access to shelter can help horses cope when winter weather’s at its worst. Horses with stalls or other permanent shelter may well be fine with just their winter coat. Horses that aren’t able to fully escape from the elements should have a waterproof sheet or blanket to keep warm and dry.

Age

As horses get older, they become less efficient in many body systems such as digestion and immunity. The ability to maintain their core temperature, or thermoregulate, is one of these systems. One way to help senior horses retain body heat is through blanketing, using the correct fill or weight of blanket so that overheating does not become an issue.

Body Condition

Body condition, or the measure of overall fat cover, impacts how easily a horse can regulate his temperature. Easy keepers, or horses with plenty of fat, are more likely to be fine without a blanket. Hard keepers, or naturally thin horses, often burn extra calories just trying to keep warm, so giving them a blanket is a smart choice

LCT and Geography

A horse’s lower critical temperature (LCT) is the lowest temperature at which he can maintain his core temperature without using additional energy. Once the temperature drops below that LCT, his hair coat and normal calorie intake alone aren’t enough to keep him warm.

The temperatures a horse is used to can impact his LCT, which is why horses in warmer climates often “get dressed” at milder temps than horses in colder areas.

Even if your horse spends most of his time unblanketed, it’s a smart idea to have one on hand just in case it gets unusually cold or snowy. If you’re prepared ahead of time, you won’t have to worry about getting a blanket rushed out right before the storm hits!