We get asked on a regular basis “When is the right time to blanket my horse?” Here in Colorado, we can get some pretty gnarly winter weather with blizzards, extreme negative temperatures and very high arctic winds. Even though as I write this it is a sunny, calm 50 degree day, we all know that now that in the Rocky Mountains that can and will change in an instant. Whether or not to blanket is certainly a pertinent question! Our answers to the blanketing dilemma are a guideline for blanketing horses here on Front Range and should be used as a good jumping off point for horse owners in other climactic regions.
Once the temperatures start dropping, we look outside at our horses and wonder how comfortable they could possibly be. But the reality is that horses are very well-adapted for the cold of a Colorado winter. When it gets cold, horse hair actually stands up and traps warm air in the hair coat, acting as an insulating layer between skin and the outside air. Think about seeing your un-blanketed furry horses on a cold day and exactly HOW furry they appear.
Studies in Canada have shown that a well-conditioned horse with a healthy winter hair coat does not lose one degree of body temperature until the temperature gets down to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, provided the horse has shelter from wet and wind. Wet horse hair flattens down and is unable to trap warm air, while the wind causes the hair to be waving and strips the insulating warm air pocket away from the hair coat.
For healthy horses with a winter coat and shelter from the wind and weather, you probably don’t need to consider blanketing until the outside temperature gets below the 0 degrees Fahrenheit threshold. When deciding when to blanket, keep in mind that horses with shelter from the elements are able to maintain their body temperature in outside temperatures that are 10-20 degrees lower than horses without shelter are able to do. Something as simple as a run-in shed or lean-to, or even the pine trees in our mountain pastures, can really make a difference in how warm your horses are. If your horses don’t have shelter, you may need to consider blanketing at a slightly warmer temperature.
Horses also create heat through the process of digestion. Different types of feeds generate different amounts of heat. Grains and mashes generate more body heat than hay, but for a much shorter period of time. Grains and mashes will usually raise the body temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Hay will not raise the body temperature as high, but will keep the temperature elevated for 2-3 hours through slower digestion. Keep this in mind on those cold nights.
In some situations, you should consider blanketing your horse more regularly. These include; show horses with short hair coats during the winter, senior citizen horses, and periods of extremely cold or extremely wet weather. For the most part, however, many horses will do just fine with limited blanketing through our Colorado Front Range winters.