Keeping Your Horse Comfortable During Cold Weather

The Christmas song, Baby it’s Cold Outside, made famous by Lee Ann Womack with Harry Connick, Jr., pretty well describes the 2013 winter to date.  To make matters worse, 65 degrees one day, followed by 36 degrees the next, is hard on humans and horses alike.   I have put on a jacket more times this winter than in the past 3 winters combined and more than once I pulled out a heavy jacket for a 26 degree morning.  So, what about the comfort of your horse?

As is the case with humans, some horses handle cold temperatures better than others.  A normal Fall, when temperatures decline steadily over a 2 month period allows healthy horses to grow a full winter coat.  The normal equine winter coat will protect most horses from cold temperatures and wind but, throw in rain on top of wind and chilling temperatures and even the best of coats may not provide adequate relief.  This is the Rule of 2 Out of Three.  Simply put, a healthy horse can generally withstand a combination of two of the three extreme environmental conditions (wind, rain, cold temperatures) but may need assistance keeping warm when all three conditions exist in combination.  Then, there are always those horses that do not grow sufficient coats to handle even two of the three factors comfortably.

Options for helping horses handle the winter weather include, stabling the horse during extreme weather, blanketing the horse as needed or providing windbreaks that provide needed protection.  Just a quick word about stabling horses during the winter.  Most barns are built more for human comfort than for that of the horse.  Avoid heating barns if horses are going to be spending at least part of their time outdoors each day.  Research indicates that horse health is enhanced if the inside temperature of the barn is no more than 100 warmer than the outside temperature.  So, if the inside of your barn is more than 100 warmer than the outside, you may need to blanket your horses when turning them out.

So, when should you blanket your horse?  Answer: when all three of the above mentioned weather conditions exist or when the temperature drops low enough to make your horse uncomfortable.  Observe your horse multiple times each day to be sure it is not shivering.  A horse that is really cold may shiver like you and I do.  If your horse has a poor winter hair coat, you should anticipate this problem.  If the weather report calls for cold temperatures, wind and precipitation and horses do not have shelter, make plans to blanket those horses that need it.  Remember, just because your horse didn’t show signs of being cold during one weather event, does not mean it won’t the next time. 

Blankets come in all different sizes and colors and, like cars, come with many options.  Do you want a closed front or buckled/Velcro front?  How much insulation do you want?  What denier should the outer shell be?  Denier refers to the fineness of the yarn/thread that was used to make the product and thus, the ability of the material to keep wind and water out.  A higher denier indicates a higher level of protection and durability.  How much insulation do you want, 200 grams, 400 grams?  Do you want a cut-back neck line or regular?  The cut-back neck line works well for some horses and may actually help the blanket fit better. 

To provide the greatest comfort and to avoid slippage, a blanket should fit the horse properly.  Measure the horse from the center of the chest to the point-of-the-buttock (as viewed from the side) to determine proper blanket size.  Blankets may be sold according to the length in inches or as Small (60”-66”), Medium (69”-72”) or Large (>74”).  If you will turn horses out in a blanket during cold weather, it should be a heavy duty blanket with double stitching and reinforced stress points.

For extreme cases, you may also include a hood.  Hoods give extra protection and are made with most of the same properties as blankets.  Hoods should have large eye holes, so the horse can see effectively and usually attach to the blanket by means of one or more elastic straps so the horse may extend its head to the ground for feeding purposes.  Also, for horses turned out in a blanket, be sure the blanket and hood are waterproof.  During extended rain your horse will likely get at least partially wet anyway, but water proof materials will extend the protection and extend the life of the blanket. Higher quality blankets may include materials that actually wick-heat and moisture away from the horses skin if the horse gets too hot.  This is particularly helpful for young horses that may run and play while blanketed and when temperatures vary throughout the day. 

A couple of points to remember: 1.  We blanket the horse to protect it from the elements.  Some horses will actually sweat from being blanketed, especially if a hood is used in combination.  If your horse sweats while wearing a blanket, cool the horse and re-evaluate the need for a blanket at that temperature.  2.  When purchasing blankets for turnout, it is recommended that materials of greater than 1200 denier be used because of their strength and durability.  3.  For greater horse health, maintain barn temperatures within 10 degrees of outside temperatures.  4.  In cold weather, feeding additional hay to horses will actually help generate more body heat than feeding an equal amount of additional grain; a practical way to keep your horse comfortable during cold weather. 

Written By

Dr. Mike YoderCoordinator: Emergency Programs; Horse Extension Specialist (919) 513-3509 Animal Science - NC State University

Posted on Dec 11, 2013

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