Horses in good condition can handle low temperatures below freezing, but there are situations when blankets can reduce cold stress for thin or geriatric horses, or horses with short hair coats. Credit: Wendy DeVito, UF/IFAS

Saundra TenBroeck, UF/IFAS Equine Specialist

Like many other horse related topics, the question: “Should I blanket my horse?” warrants the answer “It depends”.  Though Florida does not have the sustained extreme cold temperatures seen in northern climates, we certainly experience temperatures below freezing during the winter. The only constant of Florida winters are crazy weather fluctuations. It is not uncommon to transition from 68° with 84 percent humidity to 35° or lower in less than 24 hours . A 15° to 20° temperature swing between daytime and nighttime is the norm rather than the exception.

Thankfully, horses have the ability to “thermoregulate” in a wide temperature range. The thermoneutral zone (TNZ) for horses is the temperature range in which a horse maintains its body temperature with little or no energy expenditure. The lower critical temperature (LCT) for any given horse is influenced by hair coat, body condition, wetness and wind chill. The LCT for most Florida horses ranges between 30° and 50°  Fahrenheit.

Critical Low Temperature for Horses

Many owners transfer their own perspective of cold to the horses they manage. Horses that are acclimated to cold temperatures and allowed to grow a winter coat prefer (and are better off) outdoors. A horse’s natural hair coat can provide as much warmth as any blanket. Hair coat development is triggered by shorter daylength and lower temperatures. In cold weather, the hair stands up, trapping and retaining body heat. Keep in mind that when wet, the hairs lie down and loses their insulating ability. Not to worry however, the horse will burn calories to keep warm.

Back to our original question; you should blanket a horse to reduce the effects of cold or inclement weather when the temperature and/or wind chill drops below 30° and:

  • No shelter is available and there is rain, ice and/or freezing rain in the immediate forecast
  • The horse has been body clipped or the horse does not yet have a heavy winter coat
  • The horse is thin (<4 BCS)
  • The horse is very young or very old

If you don’t own a blanket, not to worry. I don’t. Simply be prepared to provide high quality forage and grain (if needed) to meet the added calories your horse will burn keeping warm. Note that one of the by-products of fermentation is heat, so provide plenty of hay when temperatures drop.

If you decide to blanket, there are many to choose from. Select a blanket (or multiple blankets) to meet your horse’s specific needs. The following tips may help:

  • Be sure the blanket fits your horse. Measure from the center of the chest to the center of the tail. Study the chart for the particular brand of blanket you intend to buy. Consider conformation/body type when selecting.
  • If your horse is outside, the blanket must be waterproof, or it will actually make them colder and could chafe. A wet blanket is worse than no blanket.
  • Take the blanket off daily, groom and check for rubs before reapplying.
  • When the temperatures rise in the morning, take it off before the horse begins to sweat. Make sure the blanket is dry.
  • Don’t put a blanket on a wet horse. Wait until the horse is dry before blanketing.

Take Home Message:

Research tells us that horses do quite well in cold weather. A long hair coat, adequate feed/hay and a wind break are key to horse comfort in winter weather. Most owners blanket their horse because of their personal feelings about cold temperatures, or if they know a horse has special needs. Assess body condition regularly and adjust your feeding program as needed to keep your horse in good flesh. A long hair coat will necessitate putting your hands on your horse to accurately assess body condition score (BCS).