Keeping Your Horse Warm in Winter

Written by Sue Stuska, Ed.D.

A friend of mine blankets her horse as soon as the nights get cool in the Fall. She adds and changes blankets as the winter progresses. In her case, her gelding needs to stay slick and shiny for the winter show circuit. But what about the horses that we take to clinics, use to work cattle, trail ride, and have in training? What do we really need to do to make sure they stay warm and comfortable in the winter?

Blanketing has its place. This artificial horse overcoat allows our companions to get through the cold months without growing such a thick hair coat. Blanketing is necessary if you’re going to be competitive in winter shows. It is also very useful if you’ll be working your horse hard and frequently through the winter. The key is the frequency. If you get him sweaty often enough, it’s worth it to blanket him when compared to cooling out a long-haired horse. But, your horse does not need to be blanketed to stay warm and comfortable all winter.

Long Haired Winter Workouts
When you work a horse hard enough to get really sweaty, his long winter hair holds in that heat and moisture. What this means is that you’ll need to take extra time to make sure he’s cool and dry before you leave him and before the temperature drops at night. If you’ve ever worked out, and then sat around in the cold in your sweaty clothes, you know how this feels. Pretty soon you’re uncomfortably cold. We would change into dry clothes. But the horse needs to cool out and dry his coat. After you’ve unsaddled, walking him (you can continue to do ground work) will allow his coat to dry by a combination of air flow and his own body heat. You can speed this process by brushing against the hair in the sweaty places to promote air circulation, by rubbing him with a dry towel, and even by using a hair dryer (consider this a training opportunity!) When his body feels the same temperature between his forelegs as on his shoulder, and his coat is dry all the way to the skin, he’s OK to be left alone. This extra cool-out dry-off process, when you plan for it, is just more quality time with your horse.

Choosing to blanket your horse for the winter will not decrease your responsibility for cooling and drying your horse after exercise. Blanketing a still-warm or still-damp horse will leave him uncomfortably cold as he perspires and the inner blanket becomes damp. While it’s easier to dry a short-haired horse, it still takes time to cool his muscles out and return his body core to pre- exercise temperature.

Body clip
To make the long-haired horse easier and safer to cool out, without taking away very much of his natural insulation, his chest, sternum, and centerline up to his flanks can be clipped close to the skin. This is called a trace clip because the clipped lines approximate the line of the traces connecting a harnessed horse to the cart. Get help from someone who’s experienced with clipping if you want to do this, because there are techniques which work well but have to be learned. You can actually clip in a number of different patterns, but any more hair loss than this will necessitate a blanket to replace what you’ve removed. Clipping the body shouldn’t be done in the springtime because it will alter the incoming summer coat, but it can be done any time during the winter.

Blanket vs. Hair
As the weather gets colder, the horse grows a thicker hair coat. The horse’s winter coat works to trap heat and keep him warm by its loft. Like a fluffy down parka, the horse’s body heat is retained by his fuzzy layer of insulation. On warmer days, he can slick his coat down and stand in the shade, or lie on the cool ground, to avoid overheating. The actual effect of a blanket is to compress the horse’ natural insulation and replace it with our synthetic insulation. So, for a blanket to help your horse, it must provide more insulation than his own coat does. If you blanket lightly, the horse will still grow some winter hair.

Once we’ve started blanketing, we can’t quit part way through the winter. If the blanket gets torn or damaged, or when it gets manure stained and we want to wash it, we need a spare. The horse won’t be able to grow thick hair quickly enough to make up for the loss of the blanket.

That’s not to say that we can’t add a heavy blanket to an otherwise unblanketed horse during a cold snap; just restrict its use to the cold hours. Do a trial run so the new feeling isn’t unnatural to your horse; most horses need to learn to get used to a blanket.

Blanket layers & cost
Blanketing is expensive. You can easily spend $50-$150 on a moderately-cold weather blanket, and may choose features that increase the cost to $200-$300. Most horse owners who blanket own at least a thinner fall/spring and thicker winter blanket, or use an inner blanket liner. Besides adding temperature versatility, the liner can be washed more easily than the blanket, keeping a cleaner surface next to the horse.

Blanket fit
Blanket fitting is an art. In general, measure from the center of the horse’s chest, horizontally around to beside his tail, and this length is the blanket size in inches. However, horses have different body shapes, and a blanket that fits in length but is too large between the chest and withers, for example, will rub.

Blanket rubs are a common challenge; you may need to try several brands before you find one that fits your horse well. Even a well fitting blanket can rub the hair off the withers and shoulders. Common solutions include using a stretchy inner liner that covers that area, lining the friction areas with satin or sheepskin, and buying a blanket with no-rub lining.

Check the belly straps often to ensure that they are neither adjusted too short (therefore restricting the horse) nor too long (where he can catch a hind hoof while lying down). If your blanket has hind leg straps, crossing the straps between the horse’s legs allows the straps to be adjusted a little longer and still stay in place.

Blanket washing
Most horses won’t go the entire season without soiling their blanket beyond use (and some can’t even seem to make it overnight!) A favorite solution is the oversized washing machine at your local laundromat, but laundromat owners and other users sometimes object. If you do have a laundromat which allows- or does not disallow-this use, be sure to take extra time to clean up after yourself to help ensure this availability in the future. Blankets that can’t be machine washed can be scrubbed by hand; commercial blanket cleaning is also available.

Blanket repairs
Strap failures and tears are the most common damage even in the highest quality blankets; horses are hard on blankets. You can make some repairs yourself with a heavy needle and carpet thread. For more extensive repairs, commercial services are available; ask at your local tack shop.

Blankets and warm days
If you leave your horse blanketed after breakfast on a chilly morning and the temperature climbs in midday, the horse will sweat under the blanket. When the temperature falls again in the evening, you have a wet horse wearing a damp blanket. Or, his skin itches and he scratches, tearing the blanket. This situation has obvious drawbacks, and most of us can’t run home to change/remove blankets midday. There are breathable blanket materials on the market; these work in varying degrees, and add to the cost. The horse with a natural winter coat will, similarly, get warm in the middle of the day, but he can regulate his temperature more easily himself.

Wet weather
The horse’s winter coat is well designed to shed water-mostly without wetting his skin. Look closely at your horse after a rain and you’ll see the water dripping from his sides where the long hairs hang along his barrel, leaving his underside dry. Horses do not need to be blanketed in wet weather; they have lived outdoors for hundreds of years. If your blanketed horse is to be out in the rain, you do need a blanket that sheds water; there are many good fabrics on the market today that do a creditable job. Dressing your horse in a raincoat is much like dressing yourself in one-it’s hard to get just the right balance of water repellency and breathability. (The ultimate rainproof material doesn’t breathe, while the best breathable material isn’t entirely waterproof.) It is possible to find a good balance- check with friends who blanket to see what works in your climate.

Cold, wet weather, however, is the hardest for the horse to handle because once he’s wet to the skin he is very susceptible to cold temperatures. Wind makes the situation worse. Aged horses and youngsters are particularly susceptible to these conditions. If you can predict the weather and have the facilities, keep the horse under a shelter (he does not have to be indoors) on these days. You don’t have to keep him warm in this case; just keep him out of the pouring rain. Wild horses have no choice, and this is one situation where our domestic horses don’t seem to take advantage of our offer. Our horses mostly choose to stay outdoors even in this type of weather and can get very chilled in the process. It’s desirable to close your horse in on these days.

Providing shelter
One of the most effective ways to keep your horse comfortable in the winter is to provide a roofed shelter, which blocks the wind and rain, in his pasture or paddock. Plan your shelter so that it’s easy for you to access (near the house), higher than the surrounding ground (to avoid water pooling), and oriented to block the prevailing cold winter wind. This does not have to be a closed structure. In fact, a barn tightly closed against the weather is warmer but less healthy for the horse because the ammonia build-up is hard on the horse’s respiratory system. The air in the barn must circulate, and fresh air must be added, to provide a healthy environment.

Given the choice, your horse will choose to stay outside-and be perfectly fine-in most types of weather. If you provide a shelter he can get under at will, and that you can keep him in when necessary, he will mostly care for himself.

Heating the barn
It’s nice for us to go into a toasty barn in the evening, and we feel we are pampering our horses, but horses do not need heated barns. The problem with heated barns, or even heated arenas (should you be so fortunate), is that the horse must eventually go outside. Exercising in one temperature and living in the other is a challenge because the horse must adjust each time you move him. If you do choose to heat your barn, be absolutely sure that there is no chance of fire; barn fires kill many horses each year.

Whether you blanket or not, water is essential for the horse’s health during the winter. When eating dry hay he needs more moisture for digestion than he does when eating grass. The water temperature is important too; if the water is too cold the horse may not drink enough and can suffer from impaction colic. Solutions include checking the water often to make sure ice has not formed on it, and breaking the ice if it forms; adding hot water at feeding time to bring the water temperature up to a comfortable temperature (be careful not to make it too hot); insulating your water bucket(s) to keep the water liquid longer (place it in a larger container with insulating material in between); and adding a tank heater (be absolutely sure there is no danger of electric shock). Check the water level at each feeding to be sure your horse is drinking.

Hay for warmth
If you anticipate your horse getting chilled on any given day (or night), you can help without blanketing. When he’s truly cold, he’ll shiver. Digesting roughage creates heat; the chewing and biological processing of hay is a good natural body warmer. Feeding hay will usually be enough to raise his temperature and stop the shivering. This must always be good quality hay: without dust or mold. It does not have to be high in protein; the carbohydrates provide the energy, so you don’t need a more expensive legume (like alfalfa) mix hay. Grass hay is fine. Throwing your horse a few extra flakes of hay on those cold nights, or when the wind howls during the day, will give you the peace of mind that you are helping your horse stay comfortable during cold weather.

This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.3

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