It’s been quite the winter up north, polar vortex and all. Old Man Winter got an early start with that horrible blizzard in South Dakota, and that was just the tip of the literal iceberg. Winter arrived early and looks set to stay for quite some time. Does this mean that you need to blanket your horses, perhaps even doubling up for those out in your pastures? The answer depends on how you answer these questions:

  • Is your horse in good condition?
  • Have you made adequate preparations for your horses for winter?
  • Will this horse be shown during the winter?

Ewe’s Not Fat, Ewe’s Fluffy!

Ever look at pastured horses and thought, ‘Gosh, you all look a bit fluffy, like you’re gaining weight. Maybe I shouldn’t feed you as much?” Well, the odds are good that your horse isn’t getting more than his fair share of the hay-truck offerings, but is instead preparing for winter. During winter months, horses grow longer, coarser hair that they can “fluff up” so that their coat does not lay flat against the skin. This fluffing is due to the arrector pili muscles, which are tiny, smooth muscles found in all mammals. When these tiny muscles contract, hair stands on end (you may think of this as goosebumps). During cold weather, this contraction helps horses to insulate themselves against the elements. Air is trapped between the erect, on-end hair, and this helps the horse to stay warm. The longer, heavier coat also means more sebaceous oils, or sebum, to enhance insulation as body heat is trapped. As you can see, Mother Nature has done some very good work to help keep your horse warm all on its own, without need of a heavy winter blanket.

Icelandic Horse Showing Off His Winter Coat --photo credit en.wikipedia.org

Icelandic Horse Showing Off His Winter Coat
–photo credit en.wikipedia.org

Horses that are unaccustomed to living outside need special attention as they have not learned winter survival skills. That first winter can be difficult, even for new arrivals from more temperate areas. Remember that early autumn blizzard in 2013 in the Dakotas? One of the many reasons so many cattle died is that none had had enough time to grow the longer, coarser hair required to help keep them warm during the cold. An animal’s winter coat is an integral part of surviving subzero dips in temperature.

Side note: Just because your horse is fluffy does not mean that is has adequate body condition. A starving horse can be hiding underneath its winter coat. The best way to evaluate body condition is to do so in early autumn, which will give you enough time to take corrective measures, such as putting some weight on or talking to your veterinarian. Place your hands directly on your horse, feeling for ribs, muscle condition, and the like. Don’t forget to check your horse’s teeth, which will be integral for helping it to eat successfully and get enough calories to stay warm. If your horse has a healthy body weight, has good teeth, and is free of parasites, then odds are good that it will winter just fine. However, if your horse has trouble keeping weight on and other factors have been accounted for, further diagnostic tests may be in order.

Gimme Shelter…and a Little More to Eat

Mustangs don’t have winter blankets, regardless of how cold it is. What they do have is the good sense to find a windbreak and to hole up there during the worst of the weather. Wild horses seldom die due to winter elements. Starvation is a far bigger problem for them. You can help your pasture and range horses out by erecting a three-sided shed, which will give them with a break from the weather. Added bonus: that self-same windbreak can also provide shade during the summer heat.

When it is really cold, horses can eat more hay than you can imagine. For every degree below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, add 1% more feed. Horses can withstand quite a bit of cold provided that they have adequate body condition, ready availability of good-quality hay, a good hair coat, shelter, and water. And remember, feed both hay and grain with a fork!

During bad weather, do the following:

  • If you’re ever worried about your horse, just give him a little good-quality hay to nibble on. This means that the horse’s body is constantly processing food, keeping it warm from the inside out.
  • If a natural windbreak or shelter is not available, be certain to provide a man-made structure for your horses.
  • Ensure that water is free of ice and readily available. If a horse is grazing in a snowy pasture, it will ingest some liquid, but not nearly enough, and that same snow will make it difficult for your horse to get to water. Adequate water helps your horse to stay hydrated (obviously), but it can also help to prevent colic.

It’s Show Time!

Many people have slightly more exotic horses, horses that they plan to take south for some of the bigger shows. Since heavy winter coats won’t be of help in the show pen, how can you keep a summer coat on a winter horse? Use this list to help keep your horse slick:

  • Keep your horse in a barn, preferably heated, when the horse is not being exercised or ridden.
  • Bundle up your horse in at least one but preferably two heavy winter blankets, and a heavy winter hood.
  • Add overhead lights that have been placed on a timer. This is an artificial way to control what your horse views as the length of its day, mimicking the length of the longer spring and summer daylight periods.

Caution: be certain that your horse is not too hot as it is easier for a sweaty horse to become ill during cold weather. Check how warm your horse is by reaching under the blankets, particularly in the shoulder area, and feeling for sweat. If your horse is sweating, remove one of the blankets or replace one of the winter blankets with a sheet.

Lastly, if you do opt to blanket your horse, make certain that your horse’s blanket fits well, is in good repair, and is clean. You should also check your horse and its blanket daily, ensuring that it hasn’t slid off or the straps tangled. Blankets that are ill-fitting, wet or dirty, or in disrepair may end up doing your horse more harm than good, and it is your horse that will pay the price.

If you venture in the tack room in mum’s barn, you’ll find the elephant graveyard of year-end award blankets. I can see them now, a steely blue with red embroidery and red straps from the early 1980s. We keep them there for emergencies, for nostalgia, and because you never know when a blanket might come in handy. Do all horses need a winter blanket? No–sometimes that blanket does more to make us feel better about winter temperatures rather than keeping your horse warm. But if you’re from the north and heading south for winter shows, your horse should bundle up.