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Does My Horse Need A Blanket? The Great Debate

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Winter is coming! Time for the great blanket debate!

I have read most every article on the planet with regards to blanketing our equines. Whether you believe you should blanket, or you shouldn’t blanket – there’s an article out there to support you!

I thought I’d finally officially chime in on the subject, with some facts, and food for thought about those facts, and of course I’ve included a special bonus section about Donkeys!

Lets get started.

Fact 1: Healthy horses with unrestricted access to forage (20+ hours a day) and some sort of shelter (wind break, tree line, etc) in the wild or domesticated, will likely survive if they are not blanketed.

Food for Thought: Does survival equal comfort? Could the horse be more comfortable? What is the definition of “healthy?”

Fact 2: The act of shivering is the horses’ reaction to create body heat.

Food for Thought: If they are shivering, doesn’t that mean they are already cold? I’d then refer back to the Food for thought above on survival versus comfort for our domesticated equine living in corrals or pastures that we restrict them to.

Tuesday hates the cold. She legitimately has learned how to tuck in her ears to her blanket hood!

Fact 3: Horses can “loft and lower” their coat at varying degrees depending on the temperature outside. This creates warm air pockets between the skin and hair, which helps them thermoregulate.

Food for Thought: This is usually the most argued reason to not blanket your horse. It seems rational enough. However the sentence that usually follows this fact in several articles is - “as long as they have shelter to keep them dry, and have protection from the wind.” The food for thought here, in Canada, is what does that mean for a wet, snowy, windy day, one where our horses eat outside, or perhaps are even winter grazing? Unless your horse lives in a barn, or you feed them inside of a large shelter that is always protected from the 360 degree Canadian winds we receive – the lofting principle on these weather days would not be able to be put in effect by the horse, correct?

Fact 4: Horses in the wild aren’t blanketed.

Fact 4 b: Horses in the wild don’t live forever either and can succumb to external factors, including weather.

Food for Thought: How far would wild horses travel over a period of days, would they instinctually know the weather is turning and have the opportunity to move to an area where they feel most protected from the elements? Does a domestic horse on 10 acres or in a corral have these opportunities? Are the wild and domestic horse even comparable in this day and age anymore?

Fact 5: Blankets can make a horse colder than they would be without a blanket.

Fact 5b: No one blanket is appropriate for universal season use in Canada. The grams of polyfill vary in blankets, from 100-400g usually. A 100g blanket on a -35 degree day, the horse would most likely be better off without the blanket, as it is restricting their ability to loft and would be the equivalent to a human wearing not much more than a fleece lined soft shell jacket on that -35 degree day.

Food for Thought: There is none here. This is fact, and a mistake I do see people repeatedly making in under-blanketing their horses. Your horse should feel warm when you place your hand under their blanket. If they are cool to the touch, your blanket is too light.

There are many many types of blankets on the market! Make sure yours is warm enough, or a really easy adaptation is to buy a liner that you can layer with.

Donkey Section!

Fact 6: Donkeys have more hair than horses, but they don’t loft their fur in the same manner a horse does; nor does their coat have the same water repellent abilities that a horse’s does. It also takes them much longer to dry out because of this.

Food for Thought: Donkeys have usually a lot more hair than horses, so they should be even more resilient that horses right? FFT Fact: Not actually so. Donkeys are desert decedents, where it’s most often warm, and is rarely wet. Donkeys need extra protection from our winter elements.

Fact 7: Donkeys are more prone to hypothermia than horses. They are in the most danger of hypothermia when it is cold, they are wet, and it is windy.

Food for Thought: In Canada – those happen quite regularly through our winter months. Would your burro benefit from a blanket?

A shivering or miserable looking animal is an uncomfortable animal. Here are some happy warm donkeys and a doggo recovering from a thyroid dysfunction, so he needed some help thermoregulating too!

Fact 8: All equus species, horses and donkeys alike – are individuals. Some are more resilient than others, some may be fine in the most extreme weather situations, others may not be.

Food for Thought: What are your horse’s individual cold tolerances? Did you know studies have been done with regards to training horses to choose whether they want a blanket on or not?! #goals

My final opinion: I use blankets in varying circumstances, on the varying horses and donkeys in my herd. The donkeys – are the most blanketed animal on the property. They are extremely "vocal" with their mannerisms, airplane ears and a general look of misery are what I am faced with if they are un blanketed or under-blanketed. Last wither with 6 straight weeks of -40 weather, I unfortunately heard many stories of donekys passing away. Donkeys are very stoic and once the appear sick, often they are almost past the point of recovery sick. I could barely keep my donkeys warm enough last year, even layered with a fleece, a 400g foal blanket, a 250g waterproof turnout, and full time access to an insulated barn (yes, there is a "donkey door" to the barn). This year I will have on hand a portable radiant heater for them too.

New to me this year is a super sweet thoroughbred boarder. I am learning more about him and the breed, and seeing that he most definitely has different blanketing requirements from a quarter horse, and probably equal to or even more so than a donkey!

My mare Tuesday is very intolerable to wind in the spring and fall, even when it is not accompanied by rain or snow. They forage on pasture during those times, so in order to have access to forage 20 hours a day, she has to spend some of it out in the elements, which turns her into a full body trembler, so she wears her Hansbo Sport lined turnout blanket on these days.

Sure, maybe Ticket the wonder pony doesn't "need" a blanket, but she sure seems pretty happy!

The last two horses and one pony, who are young and healthy and hairy – only receive blankets during the most extreme weather conditions. I can’t say I’ve seen them very often hunch backed or trembling, but when I bring out blankets when the wind is howling and flapping them around and they stand like statues at the fence while I wrestle to get them on and then drop their heads and sigh, well it makes me sleep better at night, and just like the aforementioned un-blanketed, healthy horses, even blanketed, these guys too - will survive :)

So – that’s me and my crew; best wishes - you do you! Happy winter everyone!

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