A Blanket of Misinformation

On the eve of the first expected freeze of the season here in southern Arizona, I know at least a few horse owners are asking themselves the annual question: to blanket or not to blanket.

Now the show crowd has been blanketing for months, either trying to coax coats into staying short or keeping clipped horses warm. But for those of us who leave our horses fuzzy for the winter months, these sudden cold snaps can provide a dilemma. Tuesday’s low temperature was 50; Thursday’s is forecast for 30. That kind of drop can be a problem for some horses.

But how much of a problem and for which horses? Common sense suggests, of course, the very old, the very young and the sick should have a bit more warmth on extra-cold nights. But how cold is too cold? And what about other horses?

Wouldn’t it be great if there were some nice, clear answers? Maybe some quality research, even? Voila! This post was making the rounds on social media this fall, being passed around by horse owners facing this season of dropping temperatures and the associated horse-management issues:

Here is something for my horsey friends….
Here is some information on winter blanketing that may surprise you. This is the result of a multi-year study done by CSU, using state of the art thermal detection equipment. Colorado State University is widely considered to be one of the top three equine veterinary schools in the country: Blanketing horses is one of the worst things that you can do to a horse in the winter. Horses have the ability to loft and lower their coats to 17 different levels, so it’s like exchanging 17 different thermal weights of blankets off and on them all day and night, depending on what they need- except that we don’t know what they need as well as they do. Their ‘self-blanketing’ process works a little like ‘chill bumps’ do in our own skin. That’s why long-haired horses may seem fluffier on some days than on others. Only three things make the ‘self-blanketing’ process not work: blanketing, clipping, and wind. Not even snow or rain stops their own thermostats from doing the job. Also horses are in ‘neutral’ (meaning not using energy for either heating or cooling) when the air around them is between 26 and 38 degrees. Otherwise, they’re using energy to control their temps. So- since they’re cooling their bodies when the temp is over 38 degrees, they’re having to use extra energy to cool themselves when blanketed in temperatures over that. Any time a horse that is outside and has a long coat is shivering, it’s because the horse has opted to shiver to warm itself, instead of using the option of moving. Moving generates a considerable amount of heat for a horse, but they sometimes stand and shiver while napping, etc. It does not mean that they need to be blanketed. However- a horse MUST have a way to get out of the wind in order for their
‘self-blanketing’ abilities to function fully. It turns out that blanketing is done more for pleasing the human, than to fill a need of the horse. The horse blanket industry has done a great job of making us think that their product is a necessary part of good horsekeeping- when it is actually an item that is very seldom needed.

Finally, a credible institution like Colorado State University has done some research to help us answer the blanketing question. Except, CSU didn’t actually do any such research. What?!

Ichobod, at age 30, will be wearing a blanket when the temperature dips into the freezing range. Turns out those little muscles that loft a horse’s coat can wear out, so his coat doesn’t fluff up as efficiently as it did when he was younger.

I admit I fell for it at first read. Some of the information matches what I already know about how a horse keeps warm even in rain or snow. (I wrote about it a couple years ago, even.) And I don’t disagree that some people are more inclined to respond to marketing campaigns than to learn about the physiology of their four-legged charges.

On second read, though, a couple of things stuck out. First, I find it hard to believe that temps between 26 degrees and 38 degrees are optimal for horses acclimatized to warm places like Arizona. If that were true, our horses here would be way more stressed most of the time.

I also have doubts regarding the anonymous writer’s assertions about horses choosing to shiver instead of move around to keep warm. I can only think of one instance I’ve ever seen of a horse shivering when he wasn’t wet and/or in wind (ie: cold) and that was a horse with a super short coat reacting to a cold, damp evening. (He got walked until he was warm, then was blanketed on subsequent damp nights and the shivering behavior didn’t recur. Draw your own conclusion.)

I was tempted to share the post to my Facebook page just like many others no doubt did. So glad that instead I did my due diligence, looking for both the source of the post and for an abstract of the research. Instead of finding either, I found a blog post by someone else who was temporarily fooled and then put right by a CSU source. And a reputable forum with not one but two discussion threads about the bogus research.

I can only hope there aren’t too many horse owners who believed the poster’s assertion that blanketing “is one of the worst things that you can do to a horse in the winter” based on the false reference. And that there aren’t too many cold horses out there on freezing nights because someone faked a scientific basis to back up his or her own point of view.