Blanketing


blank1 By Maddy Butcher

In a thoroughly researched paper, Natalija Aleksandrova makes a strong, supported argument for not blanketing horses. Ever.

Aleksandrova, a horsewoman, hoof trimmer, and equine researcher, posted her essay, which cited 20 scientific references, on the pages of Academia Liberti, a school of holistic equine study based in Germany.

She appeals to horse owners to let horses take care of themselves. By blanketing and using other ill-advised horse management techniques, owners inadvertently rob horses of their natural ability to regulate their body temperatures.

To read Aleksandrova’s article, click here.

The researcher, who lives in Latvia, writes that horses have efficient, multi-faceted thermoregulatory mechanisms. They are perfectly adapted to staying warm all winter, given their anatomy, physiology, and individual and herd behavior.

Domestic horses only need conditions that the species should rightly have ‘by dictate of Nature,’ she writes.

  • Freedom of movement 24 hours a day
  • Free access to appropriate food (fibrous hay) 24 hours a day
  • Herd life
  • Proper hoof care
  • Shelter that it can enter and leave freely

But what about these thermoregulatory mechanisms? Simply put: they’re how horses maintain their body temperature. These innate abilities can be broken down categorically:

blank3Anatomy and Physiology:

The skin and coat are excellent insulators. In fact, due to horses’ anatomy and physiology, it’s easier for them to stay warm in cold weather than to stay cool in hot weather or after an intense workout.

Long before the first snow flies, horses naturally grow a winter coat. Coats vary by species and environment, but generally horses in colder climates have evolved to grow thicker coats.

In addition, horses increase the insulating abilities of their coats by as much as 30 percent through piloerection: the raising or lowering of the coat via hair-erector muscles.

Blanketing inhibits piloerection.

Horse hair naturally has an oily coating that helps shed rain and snow. Blanketing and over-grooming interfere with this innate, insulating trait. Read more about grooming practices.

“Needless to say, the popular practice of clipping the hair of a horse’s coat eliminates, completely, the thermoregulatory factor of the coat,” writes Aleksandrova.

Horses’ arteries constrict or dilate depending on thermoregulatory requirements. Constriction reduces heat loss by reducing the amount of warm blood brought to the cooler body surface (in winter, for instance). Dilation allows for a larger amount of hot blood from over-heated interiors to reach the body surface and to be cooled (during or after exercise and in hot environments).

Horses don’t hibernate, of course, but they may still add as much as 20 percent body weight in fat as cold weather approaches. blank2That extra layer is important; fat is three times more insulating than other tissues, according to Aleksandrova.

Behavior

Horses may burn off some of that fat to stay warm, but they still need to eat more during winter. The shift is called climatic energy demand and it increases by about 1 percent for every degree decrease (Celsius). Metabolically, it’s essential that horses have ready access to fibrous fuel around the clock. The wood that heats their house is hay.

Wild horses conserve energy by moving less in the winter, so do domestic horses.

Horses may stand next to each other or use each other as wind blocks, thus “reducing the body surface area exposed to the environment and gaining heat from a pair or group source,” she writes.

Though not quantified by research, Aleksandrova observes that blanketing creates a blank4No-Win scenario because the horse cannot heat specific regions of its body:

“The whole body cools or the whole body heats up. Sweating under a blanket is more of a problem metabolically to the horse than people realize.”

Blanketing forces the entire spectrum of horses’ mechanisms to languish. She writes:

“They don’t need to exercise hair erector muscles, nor to dilate or constrict arteries, nor to activate sweat glands, nor to prepare or deplete healthy fat reserves. All muscles atrophy without exercising for a period of time.
Horses under blankets effectively lose their ability to stay warm on their own.”

In conclusion, Aleksandrova speculates that other management techniques -“stabling, separating from equine companions, forced exercising, lack of continuous fiber (hay) uptake” – can compound their stress and inability to cope with cold.

6 comments


  • Natalie

    Thoughts on vast differences in temp? A few weeks ago it went from 72 to 27 Fahrenheit where I live in the span of no longer than 6 hours. Stayed below 32 for a few days the back in the 60’s.

    January 17, 2017
  • My horse is older and actually shivers in very cold weather. Sometimes I would find him shivering so much, I thought he was next to becoming hypothermic. He has access to shelter, has a good amount of fat, but never develops the thick coat of hair that does his pony friend who does not seem to be affected so much by the cold. My land is in a valley which tunnels the arctic blasts so that my pastures can become very windy. When my horse looks to be uncomfortable , I blanket him. When it’s 20 below zero with a wind chill of who knows what, not to blanket him would be cruel. I think you have to make judgements at times as to what is best for the individual horse. He loves his blanket!

    December 15, 2016
    • Jana Wiley

      Yes, I have an elder Arabian mare who does not grow enough of a coat to keep her from shivering either. She wears a Rambo medium rug and does great. Does not sweat under the blanket even after running around. In our wet PNW region, people deal with rain rot if they choose to go without the rain sheets. It can pour for a month straight at times.

      December 30, 2016
  • myrna

    Thanks for the good sense and supporting science. My horses are in pasture and free of blanketing. But as a new horse owner I had to withstand the pressure of folks who felt I should be blanketing. Luckily I had the advice of others who helped me understand it would create a real problem if I started. This article explains it well.

    November 05, 2015
  • Cheryl

    I can find no article regarding blanketing on the Academia Liberti site. Can you give a direct link to the actual article?

    November 16, 2014

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