You blanket, or you don’t blanket. You clip, or you don’t clip. As a horse owner, it’s your choice. But do you know the reasons behind your choice? Science-based reasons? A recent study of Scandinavian riders showed that, generally, owners lacked the scientific knowledge for good blanketing and clipping practices.
In their survey of 4,122 Swedish and 2,075 Norwegian handlers, scientists found that about half the respondents didn’t appear to understand the way a horse’s natural temperature regulation system works. This included a horse’s bodily response to clipping and blanketing, as well as its ability to dissipate heat and recover from exercise.
“A blanket will obviously protect the horse from feeling cold due to adverse weather as rain, wind, and very low temperatures,” said Cecilie M. Mejdell, PhD, of the Norwegian Veterinary Institute’s Department for Health Surveillance, in Oslo. “The problem is that the horse’ own ability to regulate body temperature is hampered by the blanket. The chilling effect from sweating and increased blood flow in the skin is reduced, so the horse may suffer from heat stress when the weather is changing and there’s sun radiation or high ambient temperature.
“So, if nobody is there to take the blanket off or change to a less insulated blanket when weather changes to the better, there might be a welfare problem,” Mejdell continued.
In their online questionnaire, they asked riders and owners 41 questions about their horses’ housing, turnout, and feeding situations in all four seasons; their clipping and blanketing routines; their level of agreement to a series of scientific statements concerning equine thermoregulation; and personal data such as their experience with horses and their horses’ breeds and disciplines.
They received usable data from primarily nonprofessionals with an average of 22 years of experience with horses. They found that all but 11% of respondents used blankets when their horses were outdoors, at least under some weather conditions, and all but 22% of participants used blankets when their horses were indoors, Mejdell said. This varied slightly with breed. For example, about 70% of respondents blanketed their Icelandic horses during turnout. But for Warmbloods, that rate was higher than 96%.
Many respondents blanketed their horses as soon as outdoor temperatures dropped below 10°C (50°F), and nearly 20% blanketed them regardless of the outdoor temperature. About a fifth of respondents admitted that one reason for blanketing was to keep the horse clean.
Participants said they clipped their horses mainly because they believe the horses would dry faster if clipped, but also because they thought it would make them perform better, Mejdell said. While those might be true, the researchers found that many respondents were confused about scientific effects of clipping and blanketing. Specifically, respondents did not agree with the scientifically proven facts that “clipped horses have greater heat loss capacity” and that “blanketing after exercise increases recovery time.”
“Clipping will help heat dissipation under work,” Mejdell said. “This is why it is so common among competition horses. A horse that is not too hot during work will perform better. Putting on a blanket straight after exercise, however, will increase recovery time. What’s ideal is to wait for a half hour to an hour after exercise to blanket the horse in demanding, cold weather.”
Ultimately, she said, a better understanding among well-meaning owners of how horses’ temperature regulation systems work could improve their health and welfare.
“The best thing an owner or rider can do is to learn and understand the principles of thermoregulation—the balance between heat production and heat loss and effects of environmental factors such as temperature, wind, radiation, humidity, and precipitation,” Mejdell said. “Provide the horse with the opportunities or help for his own thermoregulation. This may be shade, protection from precipitation and wind (and insects), and a dry shelter where he can rest lying down. Horses have a great ability to regulate body temperature under different conditions. Do not disturb this ability.”
That doesn’t mean blankets are useless, she added. “There is no doubt that a blanket is very useful under some conditions, such as for horses in poor body condition and/or in wet or windy and chilly weather combined as well as at very low temperatures,” she said. “The need for blankets will also depend on the breed type, hair coat quality, age/health status, feeding, and acclimatization,” she said.
As their research continues, owners will be able to “ask” the horses themselves more about conditions in which they favor blanketing, Mejdell said.
The study, “Management of horses with focus on blanketing and clipping practices reported by members of the Swedish and Norwegian equestrian community,” was published in the Journal of Animal Science.