There are many steps you can take to ensure optimal winter care for your horse. By the time the cold weather arrives, the sleek coats of summer have faded to the heavy coats our horses wear in winter. But is there more to it than that?Understanding the natural abilities of their bodies and when to interfere is key to helping them survive and thrive all winter long.
Natural climate control
Depending on where you live, horses can start shedding their summer coats and building heavy winter hair as early as August. The decreased daylight and crisper air cause their bodies to prepare for the upcoming season by growing a longer, thicker coat that will keep them warm all winter. A coat change happens in the spring, too, as the days begin to lengthen again. That’s when horses shed their winter coats and lay on the sleekness of summer.
Thinner horses feel the effects of this temperature change more quickly and harshly, and their bodies respond by growing a thicker coat. You’ve probably noticed this in your own barn. The plumper “easy keepers” don’t tend to get as thick a winter coat – they have an extra layer of fat (natural insulation) already built in. This is nature’s way of helping animals adapt to weather changes – it’s a basic survival mechanism. But we often get in the way when it comes to natural winter care.
Why do people blanket or clip their horses?
Horse owners want to protect their horses from chilly or damp weather and feel blankets can best achieve this. On the contrary, leaving Mother Nature in charge of winter care is often the most effective method. But domesticated horses in boarding stables or other confinements cannot be left to Mother Nature alone – we’ve already interfered with the process by limiting their movement. Movement increases circulation and improves the horse’s natural ability to stay warm.
We also interrupt our horses’ natural way of life by riding or competing year round, asking them to exert themselves in a way they wouldn’t in the wild. If their winter coats are very heavy, they may overheat and sweat. We all know how difficult it is to dry a sweaty horse well in cold weather. So if we’re not careful, we end up with a horse that’s actually chilled instead of warm.
Many people want to avoid the time spent cooling out and drying their horses in the winter by clipping all or part of their coats. This can prevent a horse from overheating if he’s doing heavy work. Others clip their horses so they can avoid the mess and trouble of shedding season. And many who show their horses clip so they can have a sleek coat earlier in the spring. A horse that has been clipped must be blanketed, since some of his natural ability to keep himself warm has been removed.
How to decide what ’s right for your horse
When it comes to winter care for your horse, the best heat source is a natural coat, plenty of opportunity for movement, and lots of good quality forage (which fuels his natural furnace and warms him from the inside). But in today’s horse world, this isn’t always practical or possible. So what should you consider as you decide what’s best for your horse?
•The weather conditions in your area – both temperature and precipitation
•Your horse’s age
•His condition and overall health
•How often and hard you ride in the winter
•Where you ride in the winter (enclosed indoor arena versus outdoors)
•How much you’ll be showing or competing in the winter and early spring
•How much time your horse spends stalled/pastured
•The thickness of your horse’s skin (some Arabs and Thoroughbreds have very thin skin and may need extra help from a blanket)
If your horse lives in a more natural manner, you have a better chance of being able to avoid blanketing. Regardless of whether you clip, blanket, or let your horse go “au natural,” you must still provide adequate shelter from wind and rain/snow.
Sandy Siegrist is a lifelong horsewoman who practices natural horsemanship, healing and horse care techniques. She works with clients throughout the U.S. to evaluate their feeding and horsekeeping programs based on their horses’ specific needs. She also does energy work and overall health analyses, often taking in horses for more extensive rehabilitation. Sandy’s approach to horse care is based on natural and alternative therapy techniques and incorporates bio-energy testing, cranio-sacral therapy, acupressure, kinetics, herbs and flower essences, among others. Her lectures and articles address nutrition, hoof care, bodywork, worming, vaccinations, and emotional wellbeing, grounded in maintaining a more natural environment and healthcare practices. www.perfectanimalhealth.com