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/.

Winter Is Coming – Are You Ready?

As many regions of the US are still experiencing fairly mild conditions, the inevitable is coming…winter. But with proper preparation and foresight, the extreme conditions can be slightly more bearable. Read on for some handy tips to keep you and your horse warm and cozy.

  • Blanketing:  In general, horses adapt well to decreasing temperatures by growing an insulating hair coat.  As long as they have shelter to get out of wind and precipitation, and are able to meet their increased energy (calorie) requirement, they do quite well and can tolerate sub-zero temperatures.
    • Keep in mind, the insulating value of the hair coat is compromised if it gets wet.  As temperatures drop below the critical temperature which is around 50°F on average, horses require more energy to stay warm, which is best provided by increasing the forage in their diet, not grain.
    • Blanketing may be a good option if:
      • There is no shelter during turn out
      • The horse’s hair coat is clipped
      • You have a very young or very old horse that might not be efficient at maintaining body temperature
      • The horse is under-conditioned or under weight
    • Finding a blanket that fits well, is waterproof, breathable, and the proper weight (light, medium, heavy fill) based on the conditions are important considerations.
    • If you already own blankets, dig them out before you need them and check to ensure they are clean, in good repair, and still fit your horse properly.
    • Never blanket a wet horse, or put a wet or damp blanket on a horse.
  • Don’t forget to periodically remove the blanket and assess body condition, and check for any rub marks that the blanket may be causing.
  • Winterizing the barn and trailer: Fall is a good time to prepare your barn and trailer for colder weather.  Cleaning, installing or checking insulation, replacing screens with windows, ensuring ventilation is adequate, insulating water sources, cleaning and safety-checking heaters and electrical systems, are recommended.
    • In the barn:
      • Check the roof for structural integrity and leaks
      • Clean gutters and install snow slides if needed
      • Plan for snow removal and de-icing walkways, if applicable.
    • In the trailer:
      • Check the floor, lights, brakes, and tires and replace or provide maintenance as needed.
      • Put together an emergency kit for you and your horse in the event of a break-down in winter weather.
      • If you are on the road frequently, consider road-side-service for equestrians in the event of an emergency.

Good luck, stay safe, and take a moment to enjoy the site of your horse playing in the snow if you are lucky enough to see some!

Cold Weather Care and Feeding of Horses

Horse in pasture during snow fall

Cold weather, particularly below freezing temperatures and cold rains, requires that owners pay careful attention to their horses to make certain that the horses maintain weight through the winter months.

First, make certain the horses are at least a body condition score of 5 or 6, meaning that the horses are carrying some fat cover over their ribs. Body condition should be monitored by physical examination at least monthly as long hair can hide weight loss. This is particularly important for older horses. The horses should also be kept up to date on dental care and overall health care, including appropriate deworming. It is a good idea to let horses go barefoot with proper hoof care during the winter.

Second, adequate water, above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, should be available at all times. If water sources freeze, the ice should be broken at least twice per day. Owners should NOT rely on horses eating snow for their water supply. A 1200-pound horse will require 12-15 gallons of water per day during cold weather. Having inadequate water available or water that is too cold for horses to drink comfortably may contribute to impaction colic. A horse that does not have adequate water available will also decrease feed intake, which may lead to loss of body condition. Salt should be available free choice, preferably loose salt rather than a salt block as horses may not lick a cold salt block.

Third, provide shelter from cold rains and wind. Horses remain remarkably comfortable in cold weather if they are dry and have shelter from the wind. Cold rains mat down the hair coat, reducing the insulation value of the hair and causing the horses to lose body heat.

Fourth, feed more! A horse’s digestible energy requirement increases for each degree below the thermal neutral zone. Wind chill increases the energy requirement also. Hay or high fiber products produce more heat during digestion than do grains, so adding extra good quality roughage to the diet is a good option. Grain intake can also be adjusted to maintain the desired body condition, but needs to be adjusted gradually.

  • A 1200 lb. horse at maintenance requires about 17.7 Mcal (17,700 Calories) of DE for maintenance.
  • Each degree C below Lower Critical Temperature (Anywhere from 5 degrees C or 40 degrees F down, depending on what the horse is used to.) increases DE requirement about 2.5%. (NRC, 6th Edition, page 10-11.)
  • Converting to Fahrenheit, each degree drop requires about 1.375%, so if the temperature drops from 10 degrees F to 0 degrees F, the DE requirement may increase 13.75% to 20.13 Mcal or 20,130 Calories.
  • This increase of 2430 Calories would require an additional 2.8 pounds of alfalfa grass hay to maintain body condition.
  • If the horse does NOT get the additional DE, the horse could lose a little over a quarter of a lb. per day.
  • If we have 3 months of cold weather, it is very easy for a horse to drop a full body condition score.

Proper winter care will help assure that your horse is ready for winter activities and is ready for spring when it finally arrives!

Prepare Your Horse For The Winter Months

Toby Snow 28Throughout the year, tending to your horse’s needs requires you to be prepared for a variety of conditions. When the temperature falls and the winds grow colder, you should be prepared with the proper gear, supplies and accessories to keep your horse healthy and happy during the upcoming months. Learn more about caring for your horse during the winter so you can be prepared well before the first frost.

Water and Food

  • Food for Health and Warmth. Food digestion is a primary source of warmth for your horse, which means your horse’s caloric needs can increase during the colder months. Use quality forage, combined with grain, as recommended by an equine nutritionist to sustain warmth and maintain caloric intake.
  • Wintertime Hydration. Even though your horse might eat snow while it’s outside, fresh water is still important for wintertime hydration. A supply of (non-frozen) water, ideally above 45 degrees, will keep your horse hydrated and aid in digestion.
  • Mouth Health. Healthy teeth and mouth allow your horse to drink and eat without discomfort. It’s wise to have an equine veterinarian check your horse’s teeth and mouth to ensure he can eat comfortably and maintain the right caloric intake for weight maintenance throughout winter.

Comfort and Warmth

  • Your Horse’s Natural Coat. If possible, allow your horse’s coat to grow during the winter months. Its natural thickness provides your horse with the extra insulation needed to keep its body warm as the weather gets colder, as a layer of warm air is trapped below the surface.
  • Provide Extra Warmth. There are times when you must clip your horse’s coat to keep them cool while working in the winter or in preparation for a show . For this reason, or because you’ve got an older horse, extra warmth can increase the horse’s comfort throughout winter. A waterproof, breathable blanket or coat will come in handy for days when your horse needs an extra layer to stay warm.
  • Shelter During Winter. The warmest natural coat isn’t always enough to protect your horse from cold temperatures. A strong wind can cut right through it, and a wet coat can quickly lose its insulating ability. Provide your horse with shelter from wind, snow and rain so it can enjoy pasture time and still have access to an area that will protect it from the elements.
  • Wintertime Riding. When riding your horse during the winter months, be careful to warm them up properly and ensure any sweaty areas are fully dried since this can cause the horse to later become chilled. Likewise, maintain care of horse riding tack and the proper saddle so that it doesn’t become cracked and dry from the cold air, causing it to become less effective.

Tending to Health

  • Controlling Parasites. Consult with the equine veterinarian for wintertime parasite control. Once the first frost has occurred, you may want to give your horse something to kill bot larvae.
  • Barn Pest Control. People and horses aren’t the only creatures that seek warm places in wintertime. Other pests are likely to find their way into the barn. Discourage and control pests by keeping food storage in sealed containers. Likewise, store blankets, leather products and other materials that could be used for nests in sealed storage spaces.
  • Vaccinations. Good health is pivotal to staying comfortable and warm from the first frost until the temperatures begin to rise again. Part of your effort to maintain your horse’s health should include any necessary vaccinations as autumn transitions to winter.
  • Take Care of Hooves. Hoof growth occurs throughout the year. Maintain hoof care year-round. Consider having your farrier use winter studs for traction and snowball pads to keep snow from accumulating inside the bottom of the hoof.

Wintertime Storage

Make it easy to access everything you need throughout the winter months by putting away the seasonal items you won’t need again until spring. By organizing your barn storage space, you can avoid wasting time searching for supplies and spend it grooming or caring for your horse. In conjunction with preparing your horse for winter, you can also be prepared by getting organized and ready to spend quality time with your equine friend this winter.

Ashly Snell works at Dover Saddlery and has been an avid equestrian for 20 years. She currently enjoys eventing with and caring for her two Dutch Warmbloods.