By: Dr. Sarah Reagan
Instructor & Advisory Board Member at The American Council of Animal Naturopathy
There are many references on the internet to a “study” supposedly done by CSU (Colorado State University) on whether or not to blanket a horse in winter. It apparently was first posted on FB by Big Sky Morgan Horse Association here. In April 2013 I received a comment from an individual stating that this “study” is a fake and that a certain professor she contacted at CSU could not find any evidence of it ever having been done. I honestly do not know whether this study is fake or not, but I will say that I cannot locate any legitimate citation to it associated with CSU. Nor does the Big Sky Morgan Horse Association list any citation. At the bottom of this post, there is an article from Rutgers – “Blanket or Not” that I know is legitimate.
It should first of all, be understood that blanketing (or rugging as it is known in Europe) quite obviously is a construct of domestication, and more specifically of the equine show industry due to various clipping requirements.
People may also body clip (shave) their horse’s winter coat that engage the horse in high-energy performance requirements that would cause the horse to sweat under his natural heavy winter coat. This can get quite complicated as the Rutgers article indicates. While blanketing itself may seem a rather innocuous practice (or even seen as beneficial to many people), it is the underlying reason for doing so that creates an adverse situation for the horse; nor is the act of blanketing itself without compromise.
As for body clipping in the winter…this is ONLY done because the human desires it; the horse does not. Horses that are body clipped in the winter should be given extra protection in cold weather as they have been stripped of their natural ability to protect themselves against the elements. Blanketing itself may not particularly pose a physical threat to those horses that are kept stalled with minimal and restricted turn-out (it’s the restriction that causes the problems!), but I definitely would not recommend it for active horses that are kept in a natural herd and allowed freedom 24/7. But then again, why would you blanket a horse in a natural herd situation? Those horses have not been deprived of their natural protection. Blanketing does prevent growth of a full winter coat; therefore, once you start blanketing for a given winter season, it is not an option and it must be continued for that season.
There is another reason for not blanketing that many do not refer to: Animals that are adapted to the cold display an increased production of heat from brown fat. Brown fat contains an “uncoupling” protein that diverts energy away from ATP synthesis, instead favoring heat production. This process is tightly regulated by signaling from the sympathetic nervous system. (Reagan 2013)
Please note that I am not talking about the use of blankets for specific health reasons. In rescue situations in particular, more often than we like the horse is in a debilitated body condition and does not have the metabolic and physiological resources that a healthy horse does to offer protection against the elements. Until such a day as there is no more abuse inflicted upon animals, we have a responsibility to protect that animal and the use of blankets in situations such as this is very much within an acceptable realm. (Care for rescues will be addressed more in depth in another article.)