AGRICULTURE & NATURAL RESOURCES
Winter Hair Coats & Blanketing
This Timely Information Sheet provides an overview heat regulation in horses and blanketing tips.
Most horses have the capacity to grow a winter hair coat that will keep them sufficiently warm in the coldest weather. Winter hair growth is triggered primarily by the change in photoperiod or day length, and the winter coat starts to enter in mid to late August. While the process is directed by the change in daylight, external temperatures will also play somewhat of a role, in that a horse that is blanketed early will not develop as thick a coat. If a horse is blanketed in the fall to maintain a slick hair coat for fall and winter shows, the winter hair that grows in will be shorter than it would be if the horse were left unblanketed.
Once a horse’s winter hair coat is in place, the body heat will be trapped by the hair as it “fluffs up” providing warmth. Most horses can withstand even the coldest, snowiest weather without additional protection, provided there is shelter from rain and wind. A wet, flat hair coat will lessen the ability of the hair to “fluff”, thus lessening a horse’s ability to stay warm, resulting in more energy used to try to regulate body temperature. This energy will either come from nutritional sources, or directly from body stores, resulting in weight loss if added feed is not provided.
Effects on Energy Requirements
Forages (hay) or other fiber sources actually produce additional heat when digested by the horse and hence are the best feeds to increase in cold weather. Horses require 1-2 percent of their body weight in forage for optimum health. To maintain adequate body heat, the average horse needs an additional 2 pounds of forage per day for every 10 degree change below 40 degrees
Fahrenheit, or the lower critical temperature (see Tables 1 & 2).
Given the use of nutritional reserves for temperature regulation, there are some horses that have the potential to benefit from blanketing, including geriatric, sick, very young, or very thin horses, or horses that are moved to cold climates before they have fully developed an appropriate winter coat for conditions. Other examples include horses that continue to work in the winter
and those that are body or trace clipped or kept under lights likely need the additional protection that blankets provide.
If a horse is turned out in winter weather for extended periods, it is important to use a waterproof blanket and to make certain that the blanket continues to provide protection underneath. If blankets become soaked, they should be removed and replaced with a dry blanket, especially if the horse becomes wet underneath.
Horses should be checked daily and blankets should be removed regularly to assess body condition. A horse’s body condition score should remain at 5 or 6 with additional feed provided should it drop below 5.
Blanketing fit is very important! Horses can develop rub marks or sores where the straps securing the blanket fit improperly. If the horse is continuously blanketed the blanket should be removed regularly to inspected for damage and reposition due to twisting. Make sure blankets are kept dry and do not put a blanket on a wet horse; wait until the horse is dry before blanketing. Or take a wet blanket off a horse to keep it from becoming chilled. Days that the temperature becomes warm remove the blanket so the horse does not sweat and become wet under the blanket. Air out the blanket and dry out the horse’s hair coat.
Prepared by: Courteney Holland, Extension Equine Specialist, Department of Animal Sciences, Auburn University, AL. January 2018. CMH – 2018.
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