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Natural Horsekeeping: A Practical Look at Blanketing

Jody Webb sorts through the research, opinions and arguments and presents us with a good old-fashioned horse-sense look at blanketing.

Flickr/Thowra_UK/CC

Flickr/Thowra_UK/CC

After perusing through a virtual library’s worth of articles and opinions and even personal comments on blanketing, I thought the one thing that is really missing is a practical viewpoint on the subject. Practical (and not emotional) viewpoints seem to be becoming more and more rare on the planet with social media giving every person the chance to espouse their viewpoints on every subject. Articles become comments, comments become arguments and common sense seems to fly right out the window. So let’s stop a moment, step back, and take a look at blanketing as “good horse people” rather than something strung too high on emotions.

Most horses owned by people are not kept in herds.

It’s true: look around you. Most horses are owned by single people with a single horse. Most people also don’t own their own land but board their horses. Wild horses stay warmer not just because of the big shaggy coat they grow in winter, but because they have a bunch of buddies to snuggle up to. They are also very acclimated to their region. You wouldn’t bring a herd of Arabians from the desert and throw them in Montana for the winter; most of them would die. So it seems ridiculous to expect ALL horse breeds to be acclimated to the area they are in, either hot or cold. Their breeding may not allow for it naturally. So horses that are outside, not in a herd, and not one to normally grow a thick winter coat may need some help… a winter blanket, a covered area, a dry stall, and some extra feed to keep warm.

Horses kept in stalls need to be treated differently than horses kept in herds.

Okay: let’s assume you have a hardy breed that can handle cold winters… outside, in a herd. The moment you stick them in a stall by themselves you have just drastically changed their winter environment. Yes, they may be out of the rain, snow, wind, etc but now they have lost their “buddy warming system”. They have also lost “normal” lighting hours which is important for growing a good winter coat. Our boarding stable has lights on three to four hours past dark. As a good coat is partially dependent on the number of hours the lights are on, this makes it harder to grow a good winter coat.

Now before some of you “naturalists” start in on “well your horse should be outside shivering in the cold and rain!” … some of us don’t have that option. In our area, for instance, you are either dealing with deep mud (and mud scratches) or dealing with slippery, wet, tendon-damaging red clay. Most barns don’t put in the money to “mud proof” in our area. It’s like pushing water uphill with a rake. And before someone starts complaining about horses being locked up in a stall all winter, I agree with you. However, a smart horse owner knows that isn’t healthy for the horse and gets them out and exercises them. We are fortunate enough to have a low number of boarders and a huge arena to spend lots of time in.

The older or “thin skinned” horse.

I have both. I care for a 28 year old mare with arthritis AND who is thin skinned. She is an Arab, and while her health has improved since she has come into my care (she actually did grow some winter coat this year! It takes healthy nutrition to grow a good coat!) she still starts shivering and her muscles tighten up when the temperatures drop under 60. I also have a big, hunky, well muscled but thin skinned 18 year old. He dives right into his big fluffy blanket as well. Even after two years of very improved nutrition he still has a very thin winter coat. This actually makes my life easier as he is ridden the most and I don’t have to worry about a horse that is sweaty after a workout or needing to body clip to combat that issue. Without blankets he is cold, stiff, and trashes his stall on a daily basis.

The heavily-worked horse.

For the heavily working horse, the competition horse, the horse that stays in training all winter, it is very impractical to encourage a winter coat. No, this is not “natural,” but neither is riding a horse. After all, they aren’t born with a person on their back. But riding is part of what we love about horses so in order to continue doing that through the winter months, it is necessary to make some choices that some of the more “naturalist” horse owners may take exception to. First of all, it’s not practical to ride a woolly horse, especially one that is more than a trail horse. All that hair causes a horse to sweat. Sweat is hard to dry in the winter. A horse left sweaty (and unblanketed) can because sick. The options are to either shave the horse, or discourage hair growth, or both. Blanketing discourages heavy hair growth as do longer “sunlight’ hours (as stated above, barns with lights on discourages hair growth). And since their coat isn’t “winterized” it’s important to replace that with good blanketing that fits well and is adjustable to changes in weather. (One blanket wont do it ALL: after all, you own more than one coat right?)

So now that we’ve established that there may be a need for winter blanketing, what type of blankets should we use?

Well unfortunately that is a huge and complicated question. My answer is this… what do I have in my closet? I have lightweight coats, wind breakers, rain coats, thick winter coats. Sometimes I wear one, sometimes I layer them…it all depends on the weather! If the weather is very changeable I want layers so I can peel one off when I get warmer or add an extra if I get colder. My coats are sized so I can easily add layers accordingly. I do the same with my horse’s blankets: a sheet (I prefer cotton instead of nylon. Ever wear a nylon coat? Not a good temperature regulator!), a medium-weight blanket and a quilted/insulated blanket for super cold weather.

As I have five very different horses, I don’t go by air temperature; I go by each individual horse’s temperature and body issues. The two previous horses I listed get blanketed earlier and I blanket them heavier in the cold, wet weather. My two mares (who are both heavily muscled, worked lightly, and are growing lovely winter coats) get blanketed later and lighter than the others. However when the colder weather hits, they are just as happy to dive into their blankets as the others. When the weather hits in the teens, I also wrap the oldest horse’s arthritic legs as well as add more “warming” herbs to her diet.

The Supporting Winter Diet

You cant talk about blankets without talking about winter diets. Why? Think of the winter diet as “internal blanketing”. The body needs a certain amount of fat to not only insulate but also help regulate heat. A horse that is low on body fat will lose weight in the cold as it burns fat to try and keep warm. If there is no fat then they will burn muscle, leading to a downhill spiral on health and wellness. To internally blanket the horse, he needs extra calories best served in extra hay and healthy omega-3 rich fatty foods such as chai, flax, camelina and coconut. Obviously for the already-too-plump horse, this must be done with caution. However, the hard keeper will greatly benefit from extra hay and healthy fats. The addition of slow-feed hay bags and “warming” herbs can also be added to help keep the “internal” blanket going.

A Bit on “Warming” Herbs

Warming herbs such as ginger, paprika, cayenne, clove, anise, and cinnamon not only help keep the body temperature up, but keep the immune system boosted while adding vitamins and minerals to the winter stressed diet. Most horses readily accept them and the improvements are noticeable.

A Final Thought

Whether you are a horse “naturalist” and think your horse should be kept as close to “natural” as possible, or whether you own the very spoiled sports competitor horse in a very “kept” environment, make choices for your horse based on what is needed by that individual horse. At age five, your horse may do great toughing it out there in the extreme weather but that same horse at twenty-five may need lifestyle changes. We need to keep in mind to meet the horse where it is at, not where WE think it needs to be at. Those are two very different concepts. An article in a magazine or a post on Facebook cannot tell us what our individual horse needs — only that individual horse can. We need to meet the needs of our horse; we cannot expect our horse to rise to what WE think it needs. And that is going to change over time, and with each individual horse.

So I challenge you to go out and take a good objective look at your horse this winter. Are they cold TODAY? Are they too hot TODAY? Should they be inside or outside TODAY? Meet the needs of that horse TODAY, don’t assume that what worked yesterday is still today’s answer.

Your horse will thank you for it.

Jody Webb is the “Solepreneur” of AverageJo Equine, with a line of all natural supplements for horses and dogs. Her Wild Horse and Wild Dog line of products is the focus of years of research with the goal of taking your pets away from chemical laden feeds and supplements and taking them back to as close to nature as is possible in a tamed environment. With her three horses, two dogs, two cats, various rescue horses and their individual issues, there are plenty of willing volunteers with which to perfect each product. This desire came upon finding her then new horse Gideon was suffering from a metabolic disorder called EPSM. Though this disorder can never be cured and there will always be lifelong health issues for Gideon, he has gone from a cranky, underweight and severely in pain train wreck to a sassy and healthy looking beast! Jody is now taking her knowledge learned from owning such a difficult animal to moving on and helping other horse and dog owners have healthier, happier pets. Her writing comes out of the joys and pains of owning such a challenging animal. Learn more about all-natural horse products at Jody Webb’s blog, WildHorseProducts.com.

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