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Natural use of horse covers and blankets

By Teresa Ramsey

As horse owners, we have a natural tendency to want to wrap our beloved horses up against the harsh cold winters. It´s a natural tendency because, after all, as humans, we like to be warm and snug in our pyjamas and duvets during those cold winter nights, especially when there is a cold southerly rain or even snow about. So why not buy some woolly pj´s for our horses?

These days, there´s a huge cover and horse blanket industry allowing you to virtually do just that - pj´s for horses for all occasions! You can really spend a fortune on horse covers, neck covers, tail covers, etc - up to and beyond NZ$450 for one particular brand of cover! And if you have more than one horse, covering can be a very costly business.

Before you rush out and clock up your credit card for the winter, here are some facts that you might want to consider about covering your horse . . .

The horse´s natural environment:
A reminder: horses are prey animals, they have no day/night rhythm, and don´t live in caves. In direct contrast, horse owners are predators, sleep at nights and do live in caves. Direct opposites.

"The horse, which gets chilled about twenty times harder than a human, is usually far more concerned with dissipating the heat produced during muscle action, since it is, by nature, in virtually constant motion." Dr Hiltrud Strasser, A Lifetime of Soundness

Horses move 18-20 hours per day. Some people don´t move at all sometimes (ever heard the expression "couch potato"?). Everyone knows that when you move, you generate heat, therefore, horses enjoy cooler temperatures than humans.

Given that horses evolved in places such as the unforgiving cold steppes of Mongolia, they have developed ways to withstand cooler temperatures than us horse owners. They do this using what´s called their thermoregulation system:

The horse´s thermoregulation system:
Thermo regulation, a word every horse owner should know and understand. Thermo regulation simply describes the system by which the horse regulates its internal temperature. Like people, horses must maintain a constant internal temperature in order to stay healthy and survive.

Horses have evolved over millions of years to develop a top-notch thermoregulation system that works beautifully during any weather extremes, allowing the horse to withstand virtually any temperatures. The thermoregulation system of the horse works in the following ways:

Raising hairs when cold, creates an insulating layer
Parting the hairs when hot, allows optimum cooling
Skin thickness creates an insulating layer
Growing a good winter coat, keeps horses warm in cooler months
Arteries in the skin constrict in cold weather to prevent heat loss by reducing the amount of warm blood brought to the cooler body surface. Arteries dilate in warm weather to allow blood from overheated interior to access the body surface for cooling.
Sweat glands, cool the horse through evaporation
Movement, constantly in search of food and, when very cold, shivering, which generates heat

Internal Metabolic Temperature:
The horse´s thermoregulation system must be encouraged to work correctly in order for the horse to maintain it´s correct internal metabolic temperature.

This is vitally important because biochemical reactions in the body require a certain temperature to function optimally or function at all.

Covering, stabling or lack of movement, clipping etc; reduces or increases the internal metabolic temperature of the horse, which means cell metabolism and defense mechanisms function at improper or insufficient rates, pathogens can spread and multiply . . . setting the stage for disease and infection.

But thin-skinned horses need a winter rug!
There´s a common conception that lighter breeds of horses, such as Thoroughbreds and Arabs require covering during winter because they have "finer skins" than other breeds.

However, horses of any breed are able to adapt to any weather. If you horse has a "thin skin" it is because it´s thermoregulation system is not functioning correctly due to unnatural living conditions (covering, stabling etc).

An example is Thorsten Kaiser´s endurance Arabians during the cold, snowy winters in North Canterbury, New Zealand. These healthy, barefooted Arabs are not covered at all - year-round, but do have a shelter they can go into when the weather turns nasty. Thorsten says the only time they use the shelter is during a cold snap in Autumn, when their winter coat is not fully grown yet. In the middle of winter, they are quite happy to play in the snow!

And Thorsten's horses are in heavy work - Thorsten has successfully competed at New Zealand Endurance National level, 100km and other long distances, and says having horses with thermoregulatory systems that are not impaired by overuse of covers has helped with getting heartrates down much quicker.

Another factor to consider is that if your horse is unhealthy, it will feel the cold sooner than a healthy horse. That is, if it has a lot of muscle tightness/atrophy, due to compensating for pain in the hooves, incorrect hoof form etc, it will not be as healthy as it should and will feel the cold sooner. In these cases, it is necessary to return the horse to health as soon as possible, and provide adequate shelter so the horse can choose when it needs to get out of the weather.

Shoeing also breaches the insulation of the hoof capsule as metal nails conduct cold into the internal structures of the hoof. Also, old nail holes in the hoof capsule will allow the cold in.

Natural Alternatives: Horse Shelters
If one cover can cost between $100 and $450, and you have several horses, then your cover budget should easily cover materials and labour for a suitable horse shelter constructed of poles and a roof, converting an old shed, or planting a decent shelter belt of trees. That way, the horse can regulate its own temperature by getting out of the weather when it needs to. Most horse owners find though, like Thorsten above, that many horses hardly every use horse shelters - even when it´s snowing! When we think it´s cold, the horse does not!

But My horse will loose weight if he´s not rugged in winter!
In New Zealand, there are many horses, especially thoroughbreds, that are traditionally not "good keepers". The general thought for these horses is that they will loose weight if their temperature drops too low because the horse will use that extra fat to keep warm.

Weight loss depends on many factors, including correct nutrition, adequate feed over winter, the health of the horse, including how well the horse´s metabolic system is working, ie; health of liver and kidneys, etc. That is, if the liver and kidneys are damaged or not functioning correctly, then the horse may loose weight, especially if it is in transition from being shod to healthy hooves. This is because when the shoes are removed and natural living conditions restored, metabolic waste products and dead cells or tissue that have been accumulating over years inside the hoof, are taken up by the blood stream and end up in the liver and kidneys. There is a sudden overload of the horse´s system of metabolic waste products from the hooves and the horse may loose weight.

Lack of topline: On the other hand, muscle tightness and cramping/atrophy caused by years of hoof imbalance and reduced shock absorption or long-term pain in hooves due to shoeing, may also cause weight loss in winter or hard work. This is especially true of NZ thoroughbreds who have been shod and stabled from a young age during racing. Releasing muscle tightness by removing the shoes, restoring correct hoof balance and returning the horse to natural living conditions will relieve these symptoms and the horse will gain condition and health, winter or not. Covering your horse will just be covering the problem and chances are the horse will continue to loose weight anyhow because it is unhealthy.

Horses in work need a cover!
Often when driving in the countryside, you notice in a paddock of horses one horse with a cover and the rest without. Confusing. Usually, it is because the covered horse is the only one in work. However, covering a working horse will make it more difficult for the horse to regulate it´s internal temperature in order to remain healthy.

If a horse´s thermoregulation system is working correctly, the horse sweats and its hairs will part when the horse is hot during exercise, enabling the horse to cool itself correctly and more quickly during work, preventing overheating. If the horse is covered, the muscles that control the hairs atrophy and this cannot happen, resulting in overheating. Also, when a sweaty or recently hosed horse is covered while wet, the horse´s body temperature drops to dangerous levels as the horse cannot cool quickly enough. More about this later.

A covered horse does not grow a healthy winter coat, which means the horse can become too cold when the covers are taken off for a ride. The horse cannot warm itself, internal body temperature drops, and therefore the horse is more susceptible to disease and infection.

The safest way to wash your horse after a ride is to hose the sweat off the horse, scrape off any remaining water and allow the horse to dry as quickly as possible in the air currents. Movement is also important in this process as it keeps the horse warm on a cold day. This is assuming your horse has a healthy thermoregulation system. (It can take 4-5 days for the horse to develop a healthy thermoregulation system after removing covers, even in mid-winter.)

Protein Levels:
If you prevent your horse from growing a good winter coat, you not only prevent your horse from keeping as warm as it needs to during those cold nights (even with rugs), but also you are increasing protein levels in the bloodstream.

Hair and hooves are made from excess waste protein. If the hooves do not expand and function correctly (due to shoeing, lack of movement, incorrect hoof form etc) and the horse doesn´t grow a good winter coat, the excess waste protein normally used for hair and hoof growth remains in the bloodstream.

What´s wrong with a little extra protein you may ask? If there is excess waste protein levels in the bloodstream, the liver and kidneys have to work harder, increasing the likelihood of such problems as mudfever, rainscald, allergies, excema, etc.

Advantages of covers:
But hang on, are covers all that bad? If covers don´t keep your horse warm and healthy, what are they good for? Covers have their uses, they are very convenient - for the horse owner! In reality though, do these benefits of covering for the horse owner outweigh the fact that they compromise the horse's health?

  • Covers keep your horse clean, saves us brushing and washing the horse.
  • Covers prevent your horse from growing a winter coat, which looks nice for showing.

Your horse gets muddy without a cover! In New Zealand, we get a high rainfall, and in many places, that equates to a lot of mud - sometimes year round! How are you supposed to saddle your horse over all that mud?

If you are hunting or participating in a horse sport, showing or pleasure riding, a wash the day before and a rug overnight will not harm a horse with otherwise natural living conditions (ie; no rugs) and a healthy thermoregulation system that functions correctly. Your horse will maintain a healthier looking, shiny coat for the show and still be able to cool itself correctly and more efficiently during high performance work.

Your horse becomes too woolly for showing!
For showing, a healthy winter coat is considered a disadvantage because of how it looks - too long. In reality, a horse with a correctly functioning coat may appear to be woollier than he is due to the fact that he is able to raise his hairs when there´s a cold wind. With a covered horse, this cannot happen as the muscles that control the hairs are atrophied from lack of use.

Effects of Covering Your Horse:
  • Prevents growing of a winter coat: The horse is not able to grow a healthy winter coat to keep itself warm during winter, and when it is stripped of it´s cover for a ride during winter it cannot regulate it´s internal temperature and therefore is more susceptible to colds.
  • Prevents coat drying properly, esp if covered directly after hosing the horse down or blanketing a sweaty horse leaving the horse wet under his cover. Horse´s need air currents to dry themselves as quickly as possible - impossible with a heavy rug on. Result: horse´s internal temperature drops too low, setting the stage for disease and infection.
  • Cannot dissipate heat: Don´t be fooled that winter is all about cold rain and snow. There are very warm winter days where your horse is frying under there. Ever taken a cover off a horse to find he´s sweating underneath? Even on a winter´s day?

    As the horse is virtually constantly moving, it generates a lot of heat, which cannot be dissipated correctly if the horse is rugged as air currents cannot be used to take heat away from the coat and thus cool the horse. Result: horse overheats - even in winter - internal temperature becomes too high, setting the stage for disease and infection. Covers used in summer months, even light "summer covers" cause the same problems with the horse unable to dissipate heat, with the added problem of summer rain drenching the horse through it´s cover, the horse is unable to dry properly under a wet cover and ends up getting a chill.

  • Cannot raise hairs to keep warm: Blankets make it impossible for the horse to raise their hairs during cold weather, creating a natural insulation layer. Result: horse becomes too cold, internal temperature drops, setting the stage for disease and infection.
  • Blanket only covers part of the body: The front legs, parts of the hind legs on either side of the tail, the belly, beneath the neck, the face and ears, all are left exposed when the horse is covered. In order to warm these exposed parts of the body, the horse must warm the entire body, which means the covered parts become too hot. This leads to sweating, overheating, etc; setting the stage for disease and infection.

By Teresa Ramsey

Dr Hiltrud Strasser: A Lifetime of Soundness
Dr Hiltrud Strasser and Sabine Kells: The Hoofcare Specialist´s Handbook: Hoof Orthopedics and Holistic Lameness Rehabilitation.

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