To blanket or not to blanket...
....that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous winter, or to take arms against a sea of snowstorms, and by opposing, end them....
Ok, so enough faux-Shakespeare and on to the actual question: Should I blanket my horse in the cold weather?
The answer to this question is unfortunately not a simple "yes" or "no." There are many factors to consider when deciding whether to give your horse a little help with heat retention or not. I will address all of the things that I believe are prudent to keep in mind when making this decision for yourself and your horse.
The first thing to remember when talking about whether or not to blanket a horse is that his comfort is what's important. The most equivocal criteria for determining when to put a blanket on a horse has got to be, "am I, the owner, cold?" Unfortunately, I see most people blanketing in this way (and I'm sure my horses have inadvertently fallen victim to my cold-weather whims more than once, as well). As soon as the temperature dips and we reach for our jackets, it makes sense for us humans to feel a twinge of sympathy for any creature not inside a climate-controlled building. Our line of reasoning goes something like this: "I'm cold at 40 degrees fahrenheit, and my horse has to sleep outside naked in this weather, so I suppose I should put a blanket on him," but this is erroneous for a few reasons.
First, horses are bigger and hairier than we are, meaning what's cold to us may not be for them. It's important to remember that horses, with their large hair-covered bodies, are more efficient at heating themselves than they are at cooling themselves. While a human's ideal temperature range is somewhere between 60 and 80 degrees, horses are the most comfortable in temps around 30-50. A horse's winter coat is highly effective at trapping heat next to the body, even in adverse conditions such as wind and snow. Since a horse's body is naturally a couple of degrees warmer than a human's, the heat they trap in their coat is nothing to scoff at, either!
Humans have extremities that experience cold in a different way than our horses' limbs, as well. We have muscle and fat tissues in our arms, hands, legs and feet that require a rich supply of blood to function normally, so when blood is rerouted to our internal organs in cold conditions, we immediately feel the effects to our suffering limbs.
Horses, on the other hand, have mainly bone and connective tissue in their extremities, and therefore require almost no blood flow to speak of. When a limb does start to get too cold, the legs contain shunts that open to allow more blood to the area to quickly heat it back up before sending the cooled blood back to the horse's inside to reheat again.
What all of this tells us is that our perception of cold has very little to do with our horse's, and we should not use it as an indicator that our equines need a cover.
Also keep in mind that while we humans like to think of our horses all snug in their blankets on a cold winter night, for them, the blanket is more of an inconvenience that they would prefer to forego most of the time. If you need evidence of this, just look at your barn's resident blanket-Houdini the next time his human buys him a new blanket--if he can't escape from it, he will attempt to destroy the offending article of clothing by any means necessary!
So, unless your horse fits one or more of the criteria below for needing a covering, it's probably in his best interest to leave him naked and instead grant him a way to make his own decisions about his comfort, such as providing a manmade shelter that he can use as he pleases or offering extra hay on the coldest nights so he can eat more to stay warm (the fermentation of forage in the cecum acts as a little internal heater to horses). The following questions are ones you should ask yourself (or if you're unsure, a trusted equine professional) to help you determine your horse's blanketing needs.
Is my horse shivering?
Personally, this is my number one criteria--and a simple one--for deciding whether or not to blanket. A horse who is shivering is uncomfortably cold, while a horse who's not shivering is likely not too uncomfortable. I will usually first try to resolve shivering through other means, such as providing shelter, extra feed, or drying off a wet horse. If none of these efforts are sufficient to eliminating the horse's shivering in a reasonable amount of time, I will most likely provide the horse a coat.
That being said, there are certain circumstances in which I will blanket a horse who's not shivering and other times I will not put a blanket on one who is. Often, this is a subjective call that is difficult to quantify. Some of the remaining criteria below will give you some more insight into the reasons I may opt to blanket a horse who's not shivery; but to decide not to blanket a shivering horse, I mainly take into consideration the time of day and weather forecast.
If a horse is shivering slightly in the morning and I know that the day will be getting warmer and the sun will be shining, I will opt out of a blanket and instead just give him some extra feed and make sure he has a dry place to stand, knowing that in a couple of hours that same horse may be overheated if he were wearing a blanket. If, however, a horse is shivering in the evening after having already received extra food rations and I know it's only going to get colder as the sun sets, I'll definitely put a coat on him.
A horse who's not shivering but has his tail clamped down and looks tight and uncomfortable may also be telling you he's cold, so observe him well to make sure you're not missing any of these more subtle signs signs.
What's my horse's BCS?
BCS, or Body Condition Scale, is an objective way to talk about a horse's weight rather than just saying "thin" or "fat". The scale ranges from one to nine, with the ideal being about a five. An underweight horse (one whose BCS is lower than it should be) may benefit from blanketing in cold weather more than one whose body condition score is higher. It's important to keep a close eye--and more important, a close feel--on your horse's weight in the wintertime since a shaggy coat of fur can hide some of the most obvious signs of weight loss. Horses, just like humans, burn calories to stay warm so a horse with very few calories to spare can really suffer a blow to their BCS when temperatures dip. Giving these horses a little help with heat retention can prevent them from losing any more precious pounds so they don't become emaciated by springtime.
How consistent can I be in blanketing and--more importantly--unblanketing my horse?
If the answer to this is "not very," then the most responsible way to winter is without a blanket. A horse should never go for more than about 12 hours without someone removing his blanket, whether to allow him some air and the ability to roll and stay comfortable during the warmer part of the day or to at least check for rubs and adjust any discombobulated straps.
Most horses are much better off without a blanket on during the day when the sun is shining, even if the temps are still quite low. The only times I ever leave my horses blanketed during the day is if the thermometer reads deep in the negatives (e.g. -15F or colder) and there is a considerable cloud cover accompanied by wind or precipitation. There are very few places in the country that experience these extremes during the daytime, even during the coldest part of the year. You are not doing your horse any favors by leaving him blanketed on a warm day, and even less so when the sun sets and leaves a sweaty horse to spend the cold night in a wet blanket.
Conversely, sporadic blanketing once in awhile can also do the horse a disservice. If he gets used to being covered when the temperature is in the 20's, but then on the days it's closer to 0 you can't bring yourself to leave the house to go blanket your horse, he's only going to suffer more than if you had never gotten him expecting to get a blanket at all. Horses are resourceful creatures and most of the time will grow enough coat to protect themselves if you do nothing at all. If, however, you disrupt their natural ability to provide themselves protection (by starting to blanket them too early in the season, for example), then it's of paramount importance to continue to help them stay comfortable with a blanket for the rest of the winter.
Where does my horse live?
I once knew a girl in Colorado who moved her horse from an outside facility into a heated indoor one, but with no change in her blanketing routine. I would regularly find her poor mare sweating under her heavy winter rug in the 50 degree barn.
So, ask yourself, is my horse in a heated show barn, or is he in a windswept, shelter-less paddock without any buddies to huddle up with? Does he have dry ground to stand and lie on or only a snow bank? Are you boarding your horse in Florida or Alaska?
The answers to these questions should also inform your decisions on what kind of blanket to purchase (if any) for your horse. A horse in a box stall may do fine with a quilted, breathable stable blanket, while a horse outside in extreme conditions will need something warmer and that is waterproof. Putting a non-waterproof blanket on an outdoor horse when there's any kind of precipitation will only make him colder than no blanket at all, and putting a heavy impermeable rug on an indoor horse will likewise make him uncomfortable.
How old is my horse?
Older horses (upper teens-20's) struggle more to stay warm than do their younger buddies. There are evenings that I might blanket my 24-year-old mare while I keep her 11-year-old daughter naked.
Does my horse have any condition that makes it difficult for him stay warm?
Going along with this question would be, have I recently moved from a warmer climate to a colder one? In general, a young to middle-aged healthy horse who is of a good weight shouldn't need much help to retain heat in the winter as long as they have shelter and feed and have been adequately acclimated to their environment. However, a horse who is malnourished or has a health condition might be a good candidate for a cover, and the same goes for horses who've been body-clipped over the winter or have just moved from a warm climate to a colder one.
Will my horse have to contend with more than one extreme weather condition at once?
A horse who normally does fine without a blanket may benefit from one if he will be exposed to more than one of the following weather conditions simultaneously and has no way to escape it: extreme cold (e.g. -10 or -15 degrees F.), wind, precipitation. Any combination of two or more of these conditions and no access to shelter can make even the toughest animal struggle to maintain their body heat in an ideal range.
So, there you have it--the list of questions to help guide you through the process of deciding whether or not to blanket your horse. Ultimately, it's a subjective decision that each person will have to make for his or her horse, but it's best to go about it armed with the knowledge to help you make the right choice for your horse's comfort. If you have any further questions on this or any other subject, feel free to contact me via the contact page on the website. Stay warm!
BLANKETING DO'S AND DON'T'S
DON'T put a blanket on a wet horse, EVER--it's not helping him and will only make him colder
DO dry him off first if you need to blanket
DON'T use a non-waterproof blanket for a horse who has access to the outdoors--he will get it wet and then be miserable
DO use a breathable blanket, and pick one with shoulder gussets that's well-adjusted to your horse to avoid getting him tangled in straps or causing shoulder rubs from movement
DO remove your horse's blanket when he's in turn-out or anywhere else he may be quite active since he'll be likely to sweat under his covers. Also, if he's in turn-out with buddies it's only a matter of time before they help him destroy his outfit
DON'T ride your horse in his blanket--he could overheat to a dangerous level
DON'T just blanket your horse in the fall and take it off again in the spring
DO remove it for the warmer parts of the day and check for any rubs on the horse or parts of the blanket needing repairs
DO use a blanket that's the correct weight for the conditions