Ask the Expert: When to Blanket a Horse

Question: I’m confused about blanketing my horse during the winter. I grew up with horses happily housed outside and un-blanketed during the winter months. The horses had access to shelter. I’m now boarding my horse and everyone at the barn blankets their horse and thinks I’m crazy not to! The horse does have access to shelter while outside. Can you please give me some advise on blanketing during the winter?

Answer: Most horses are blanketed for various reasons (i.e. show schedules) or due to personal preference of the owner. However, blanketing a horse is necessary to reduce the effects of cold or inclement weather when:

  • There is no shelter available during turnout periods and the temperatures drop below 5°F, or the wind chill is below 5°F
  • There is a chance the horse will become wet (not usually a problem with snow, but a problem with rain, ice, and/or freezing rain during cold weather)
  • The horse has had its winter coat clipped
  • The horse is very young or very old
  • The horse has not been acclimated to the cold (i.e. recently relocated from a southern climate)
  • The horse has a body condition score of 3 or less

A horse will continue to develop a natural winter coat until December 22 (Winter Solstice), as days are becoming shorter. Horses begin to lose their winter coat, and start forming their summer coat, as the days begin to get longer. Blanketing before December 22 will decrease a horse’s natural winter coat.

Author: Marcia Hathaway, PhD, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Horse Nutrition Tips Heading in to Winter

Cooper and Ferris in a snowstorm
Ferris and Cooper enjoy turnout in the winter months; it keeps them fit and happy.

This is my favorite time of year!  It is a time of reflection and relaxation after the show season, when I have time to hit the trails and enjoy the fall colors without the bugs tagging along.   The leaves have changed and like it or not, Old Man Winter is right around the corner.  Shorter days and cooler temperatures are signaling our horses to grow their winter hair coats. 

With these seasonal changes, there are a few good management practices and considerations that can facilitate a smooth and stress free transition into the cooler months of the year. 

  • Salt: Make sure loose white salt along with fresh clean water is available to your horse(s) at all times.  Meeting this requirement helps keep your horse drinking, and may help prevent seasonally related colic episodes due to reduction in water consumption as the days get colder. 
    • Loose salt is preferable to a block, as horses are not partial to licking a cold block as temperatures fall, and may not consume enough to meet requirements.  However, a salt block is preferable to no salt at all.
  • Water: Provide water in an insulated or heated bucket/tub.  Research suggests that water kept between 40 – 65°F is preferable to cold water, and helps maximize consumption.  Make sure your water source is insulated or heated to prevent ice formation when temps dip down below freezing.
    • Check electrical wires and grounding to ensure everything is working properly and is safe.  All wires should be protected to prevent chewing or disconnection from the power supply.
  • Hay: Providing hay as an alternative to fresh pasture as grass goes dormant is a common practice to meet forage and increased energy requirements as it gets colder.  Stock up now!  Having a reliable source of good quality hay that will get you through the winter months is important. 
    • Long stemmed forage is the best, however hay cubes, complete feeds, hay stretchers or replacers can be good solutions if hay is scarce, too expensive, or of poor quality. 
  • Foot care: Having a chat with your farrier about your goals and your horses’ specific needs over the winter is advisable.  You may want to consider non-slip solutions or snow pads for horses that are shod, or potentially taking off shoes, and letting your horse go barefoot for a few months.  In any case, regular trimming and balancing should be continued throughout the winter months although frequency may go down due to slower rate of hoof growth during this time of year.
  • Check in with your veterinarian:  Fall is a good time to check in with your vet to make sure your horse is up to date on recommended vaccinations, dental care, and de-worming.

With a little extra preparation and effort, you and your horse can enjoy a wonderful winter together!