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Winter Horse Keeping: To blanket or not to blanket??

Posted by Robin Stewart on October 27, 2010
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Sometimes horse owners can give too much credit to their horse’s ability to stay warm during cold winters. Even here in Las Vegas the temperatures can drop below freezing.  It is true that wild horses do not, of course, wear blankets. However, their advantage is the ability to keep moving and foraging for food. They can also find shelter and gather close to one another to share warmth and body heat. Unfortunately, this may still not be enough to ensure survival as some wild horses will succumb to harsh weather and exposure to the elements.

It is very important to a horse’s health to stay warm enough during cold winter nights, especially here in Las Vegas where we have very high winds and freezing temperatures combined. Continuous exposure to cold weather can cause a horse to drop weight quickly, have contracted and sore muscles and can even cause digestive upset, like colic, if the horse is too cold to drink water.

As a horse owner, it can be challenging to not know for sure how your horse is feeling especially when it is something as simple as whether they are warm enough or not. Seeking advice from other horse owners can be equally challenging as opinions can vary greatly, especially in a town known for it’s hearty wild mustangs! There are many “old school” cowboys that still believe horses are fine without any sort or shelter or protection from the elements.  Luckily, there are signals that your horse can give you if he is too cold and needs a blanket or extra care during  the winter months.

  1. Observe your horse to see if he or she is shivering. This is your horse’s way of staying warm in extreme cold. However, shivering uses a lot of energy and is therefore tiring for your horse and costly for you as the feed you buy for him is going towards this energy usage. If your horse is shivering from the cold, it is a good indicator he will benefit from a blanket.
  2. Check your horse’s water consumption. If possible, measure or observe how much water your horse is drinking. During the winter, horses naturally drink less water than in the summer. However, he should still be drinking 8 to 12 gallons of water each day. If the horse if very cold, he is less likely to drink cold water to stay hydrated.  Check for frozen pipes, if your horses uses an automatic water bowl and the pipes are frozen your horse could be in danger of dehydration.
  3. Measure your horse’s weight. Many tack and feed stores sell double sided measuring tape for determining the height and weight of horses. Keep a close eye on the horse’s weight throughout winter. Any drops in weight should be countered by proper feeding and blanketing. I typically add grain and alfalfa to my horse’s winter diet to offset potential drops in weight.
  4. Check the weather forecast. Once temperatures drop below freezing, consider blanketing your horse. Most horses should wear a blanket during subzero temperatures.
  5. Provide a blanket to horses who have health considerations. Horses that are very old or young, ill, have a sparse coat or are underweight will need a blanket during cold weather.
  6. Last but not least, be consistent! Once you begin blanketing, particularly if done early in the season, your horse will not develop a heavy coat as he would in nature. It is important to ensure that your horse will be protected in the absence of a furry winter coat. Equally important is removing the blanket when we experience those glorious sunny days Las Vegas is known for. If temperatures rise during the day, the blanket can be removed to avoid the horse from overheating and sweating. A wet horse will be a sick horse if left to sweat under a heavy turnout rug during the day.  So be careful and be consistent with your blanketing routine.  Keeping your horse warm and dry during the wet and cold months is key to his health and well being.

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