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.
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 they 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:
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. That extra layer is important; fat is three times more insulating than other tissues, according to Aleksandrova.
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.
“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.