Joyce Harman, DVM, MRCVS
Most horses love cold weather. They are much more stressed in the heat. Some exceptions are our equine friends from hot or tropical climates such as the Middle East, the Australian Outback or Florida. But in general, horses are highly tolerant of winter weather and often thrive in cold conditions with proper “winterization.”
So, how do you winterize your horse, especially in regions that are experiencing fluctuations in temperature patterns such as unexpected warm weather in mid-winter or unpredictable highs and lows in daily temperatures? First, assess your horse’s individual needs and behaviors. Just like humans, some horses are cold-natured and need their blankets and some are warm-natured and hate blankets. Some horses live outside and others do not. Older horses have different needs than younger ones. Horses with weight issues may have specific dietary requirements for healthy maintenance. Some horses are extremely active and others are not. Some are fully or partially clipped.
Horses know when they are cold and will naturally warm up by running around. Healthier horses live outside most of the day, at a minimum of eight to 12 hours or more. They adapt to the cold better if outside more frequently.
All of these scenarios contribute to what approach you should take to prepare your horses for winter and to adapt if the weather or temperature makes unexpected changes to normal weather patterns.
Winterizing your horse often focuses on blanketing. Let’s discuss the best practices for using a blanket – or not.
Blanketing – Pros and Cons
The question often comes up about blanketing horses in the winter. But, this is not a one size fits all question. Horses are physically designed for cold weather. A horse’s coat or fur does well, even in sub-zero temperatures. The coat insulates the horse from most weather conditions and will “fluff up” just like a cozy down jacket. Snow rarely bothers them and shivering is not a bad thing, it’s done to keep warm. Horses will also naturally seek shelter from wind by going into a shed or standing in low lying places in the pasture away from the wind or standing around trees.
But cold, wet rain on a 32 to 40 degree day is the hardest weather for horses to stay warm because they get wet to the skin. Horses will often seek out a shed or shelter to get out of driving rain, to shiver and warm up. When it’s really cold, 20 degrees or below, horses are generally outside, eating hay and not bothered because their fur is doing its job.
When a horse sweats a lot, as opposed to the rain, the skin becomes wet from the inside out and the fur can’t do its job. Sweating occurs because the horse is working or exercising such as daily rides or participating in training for sporting events like foxhunting, racing, showing, or taking long trail rides. In these situations, horses need to be fully or partially clipped. Once a horse is clipped, you must blanket the horse for winter conditions. For less frequent riding or other activities, consider partially clipping the areas on your horse that sweat more profusely. Instead of shaving the whole horse, look at where your horse is sweating. This will help to lessen the dependence on blanketing. It is important to take time to thoroughly dry your horse’s coat and skin for maximum protection from the cold. You can use heat lamps, hair dryers or wool coolers to dry your horse out.
Older horses may need blankets. Older horses do not generate internal heat very well just like older humans. The best way to manage your older horse, and others for that matter, is to put your hand inside the blanket to feel the temperature and level of moisture. If your horse’s coat or skin feels moist, you may be using too many blankets. If warm and dry, then the blanket is fine. If it feels cold inside, you may need another blanket.
Blankets – Get the Right Fit
It is imperative that your horse’s blanket is properly fitted. Think about it – do you want to wear your heavy winter coat that doesn’t fit all day long? No!
The best way to determine if your horse’s blanket fits after your horse has worn it for long periods of time is to check if the front buckles are still loose enough that you can put your hands beneath them. The shoulders themselves should not have a lot of pressure. This is a well fitting blanket. If you come in the morning and your horse looks strangled and the shoulders are stretched and tight that means your horse was fighting against that all night. Your horse will have stiff shoulders and tight withers. If your horse is older or arthritic they will get stiffer during the winter.
The most common problem is that blankets are too large around the opening for the neck. The neck part of the blanket should be on the narrow part of the neck before the shoulders. Blankets that are too big around the shoulder will slip back gripping the shoulders and the withers. This will cause extreme pressure on the shoulders and also gait restriction.
Blankets are not cheap. But there’s an easy fix if the blanket is too big so there’s no need to replace it. The goal is to free up the shoulder. You can adjust it by sewing a dart in the neck about half way up. This will pull the blanket forward and free the shoulder. Occasionally if you add a dart, it pulls the blanket forward which exposes the rear, but if your horse has a good coat or bushy tail that should be fine.
Gussets on blankets are often in the wrong place and cause shoulder pressure. Gussets need to start higher up on the shoulder. Changing the gusset position with tightening the neck gives more shoulder freedom. A lot of horse companies make the under sheets the same as the blanket size. Make sure your layers fit properly. You can’t cheat on one layer because then the whole layer won’t fit right.
There are many injuries that happen when blankets are not buckled or fitted properly. When you blanket your horse, put the blanket on the shoulder area loosely. Close the front buckles first, then, pull the blanket gently back into position. Do not pull hard. Starting with the front buckles, if the horse takes off, the blanket will not fall off and spook him or turn into a bucking strap. When taking the blanket off, do the reverse. Undo the belly buckles first. Open the chest buckles last. Safety is always important. One spook can send your horse’s blanket sliding backward with belly buckles still done.
Enjoy Your Horse in the Wintertime
It is important to establish a winterization plan to keep your horse healthy and avoid injuries throughout the cold months. A good rule of thumb is to blanket only if necessary. Make it a priority to fit your blankets well and adapt to your horse’s individual needs – not just the temperature outside or your perceptions about the horse based on your own needs. Let horses be horses in the winter and enjoy the colder months with them!
Portions of this article are from a live webinar featuring Dr. Joyce Harman, DVM.
Watch the full presentation at https://youtu.be/sryv0Tz1trc. This webinar was proudly sponsored by Doc’s Hemp, your #1 source of CBD for horses, dogs and cats.