To Blanket or Not to Blanket…Sorting Through Your Horse’s Laundry

Is my horse too cold, is he too hot?  Does blanketing help to reduce hair growth?  The questions surrounding blanketing are endless, and it seems everyone has an opinion.  We will tackle the issue of blanketing in three stages.  First, it is important to understand the mechanism behind a horse growing a winter coat, and whether or not his condition and lifestyle warrant an extra layer of protection from the cold.  From there we will take a look at different blanket types and their uses, and finally we will discuss the unique temperatures in San Luis Obispo county and when it is appropriate to blanket heavy vs. light, if at all.

Contrary to what most horse owners believe, “cold weather” has very little to do with a horse growing a winter coat.  Instead, the coat grows mostly in accordance to sunlight.  As the days get shorter, the horse’s natural mechanisms kick in and tell the coat that winter is coming.  Also, a horse that is well fed will typically keep a shorter coat than one who is malnourished; a hungry horse is a cold horse, and naturally, if a horse is cold the body will respond by telling the coat to grow.

As riders, many of us battle these changes in coat, because, let’s face it, a thick winter coat isn’t the easiest thing to deal with when it comes to riding.  Some of us who show our horses even put them “under lights” in an effort to trick the natural mechanisms into believing that they are experiencing a sort of endless summer.  Many people believe that if they simply pile on the blankets as soon as there is a chill in the air, they will head off the growth of a winter coat, but sadly, it isn’t that easy.  All that this does is “slick down” the coat (which naturally has a “fluffy” appearance as a buffer to cold air during the winter), and thus it appears that the coat is slightly shorter, but this is little more than an illusion.

So, as the days grow longer and the nights get colder, it’s time to ask yourself whether or not your particular horse needs extra protection from the cold.  You must look at your horse as an individual.  How old is he?  An older horse may need more “help” than a younger horse.  What breed is your horse?  Certain breeds seem to naturally keep a shorter coat year round; a thoroughbred may not grow as thick of a coat as an Icelandic Pony.  Where does your horse live?  A horse on pasture with a herd will naturally learn to stand close to his herd mates for warmth, and will do more walking and grazing throughout the night to generate heat than a horse who is confined to a stall or paddock.  What is your geographic location?  On the Central Coast, we are blessed with fairly mild temperatures, though there are areas in the North County that can get very cold, and areas in the South County that stay milder year round.  Finally, what is your horse’s work load?  A horse who is in year round training will be more comfortable and easier to manage with a shorter coat; a horse on lights or that has been body clipped must be blanketed to give back what has been taken away.

So, now that you know your horse and his own unique situation, what next?  The generally adopted thinking among the majority of veterinarians and professional trainers is that if your horse does not “need” to be blanketed it is best to allow nature to take its course.  If you have a robust, well fed horse that maintains his weight throughout the winter months and grows a full, fuzzy coat, it is probably best to let him stay unblanketed and simply limit his exposure to wet weather as much as possible.  Remember, though, if you do choose to blanket, you will be “slicking down” that natural barrier against the elements, so once you buckle on that blanket, you should continue to blanket for the season.

The next issue we will tackle is choosing the proper blanket for your horse.  From turnouts to stable blankets, rugs to waterproof sheets…stay tuned for an explanation of blanket types and when to use them in my next article.

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