If the title of this post sounds familiar to you, it should—it’s the title of a book written by Susan McBane and published in this country by the Lyons Press (2005). The book is a common-sense look at how to do all the usual horse chores when it gets cold outside—and to judge from Tuesday morning’s headlines, it is frigid outside! Living in California—even its inhospitable high desert—does have its advantages. Like many owners, Susan McBane—as well as William Healey, the guest blogger who discussed blanketing in my previous post—advocates blanketing horses in the winter. I do not, except under certain very specific circumstances.
Unprecedented arctic weather: Using Healy’s guidelines to insure a proper fit, I would buy my horse a medium-weight blanket just for emergencies like the one we just had, where the temperature in some states plummeted 55 degrees in 24 hours. When the daytime temperatures hover around zero and it’s too cold for people to stay outside longer than ten minutes, your horse isn’t prepared for those extremes either.
Your horse’s age: Old horses don’t necessarily need blankets, especially if they’re in good health and grow a thick winter coat. Mother Nature seldom errs when she clothes her animals. In temperate climates, horses evolved to grow a long, thick, shaggy coat in winter—humans either weren’t around yet, or if they were, they were more interested in getting the horse into the stew pot than they were in his well-being. But because desert-bred horses (Arabians, for example) don’t always grow heavy, protective winter coats, their owners usually keep them inside a barn during the winter, and keep blankets on them—especially older horses. When Prim, my American Saddlebred mare, got to be about eighteen, I decided I better buy her a couple of blankets, just in case. One was a medium-weight blanket to keep her warm. The other was rain-proof, in case we had an exceptionally wet winter. She never wore either of them—she had no need to.
Your horse’s fitness level: Even if your horse lives outside in a pipe corral that’s at least 24’ by 24’, or a dry lot (an area that might be considered a pasture in some parts of the country, except there’s no grass in it—only dirt), he’s probably getting enough exercise to keep him warm just by walking around. As with elderly horses, as long as your outdoor horse isn’t thin, doesn’t start losing weight, and doesn’t have a chronic illness that weakens his immune system, the designer coat Mother Nature gave him is sufficient.
You keep your horse inside a barn: A barn that’s well-built enough to be snug in the winter will usually be stifling hot—no airflow—in the summer. (Keep this fact in mind should you be tempted to build a barn for your horses.) When I was a kid in New Jersey, I babysat my neighbor’s horse, since I got home from school when it was still daylight, but his owners both worked. I was responsible for feeding Playboy his hay and a ration of grain when it started to get dark. (In return, I could ride him whenever I wanted.) The barn was an old, classic wooden two-stall barn, with Dutch doors. Playboy occupied one of the stalls, and the hay was in the other. Since we usually had snow on the ground all winter, and since the old barn was only a few degrees warmer than the outside temperature, he was blanketed. If your horse is in a similar situation, and he doesn’t get turned out on a regular basis, blanket him. (Playboy—who was about fifteen years old—wasn’t turned out again until spring.) Especially if he’s in a standard-sized 12’ by 24’ stall, he’s not getting enough exercise to keep him warm.
You own a show horse, or ride for pleasure several days a week: Under these conditions, particularly if you live in the colder regions, you probably keep him clipped. (In other words, you have his body—but not his legs—shaved almost to the skin.) If he’s body clipped, he definitely needs a blanket. Why clip a pleasure horse at all? Because if you do ride often—hard enough to make him sweat—it will take you a long time to dry off that thick winter coat. Try clipping him only on the area of his body where the saddle pad/blanket goes. Make sure you towel off your horse until his hair is damp—as opposed to wet—before you blanket him and put him away.
Those are the only exceptions I can think of. Keep in mind that horses in extremely cold climates are usually working horses—I’m talking about places like the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana; seriously cold climates—and they’re usually turned out during the winter. Cowboys don’t blanket their working horses any more than they blanket the cattle they raise. Their horses find shelter under trees or the side of a hill, and they grow heavy winter coats. (Cowboys who compete with their horses in the show ring usually keep them stabled, clipped, and blanketed, just the way hunter/jumper owners do.) What they do instead of blanket them is put out extra hay. You can do the same for your horse—feed him more hay (not grain) than you do in the summer. The very act of chewing will keep his heart pumping and his blood circulating—and will keep him healthy, happy, and warm.