As most horse owners know, there are probably just as many ideas and attitudes about blanketing as there are equines on the planet.
“Despite this, little research is available on the prevalence, reasoning and management decisions relating to the utilization of blankets for horses in North America,” states a recent study on the topic that explored information gathered from horse owners and caretakers who participated in an online survey.
“Before collecting data we were under the hypothesis that the equine industry has such a wide variety of opinions and beliefs and practices regarding blanketing,” said lead author Ashley Tuszka of the University of Wisconsin in her presentation to the Equine Science Society virtual symposium last spring. Tuszka also noted a lack of knowledge on the impact of blanketing on horse health and welfare triggers at least some of the debate and this, too, can be blamed on “minimal research.”
Tuszka said she and her colleagues from University of Minnesota and Wright State University in Ohio felt the survey would bring the differences of opinion and practices of North American horse owners “into the limelight,” so they’d be able to detect and analyze them.
The 33-question online survey was disseminated via social media, primarily Facebook and the University of Minnesota extension horse e-newsletter between December 1, 2020, and January 5, 2021. Data was collected from 1,450 North American participants and it was statistically analyzed and evaluated. Researchers noted the following:
Overall, 54% of respondents reported blanket use on most horses during winter (78% responded they did so due to exposure to precipitation – rain, sleet, snow – and 52% said they blanketed when temperatures fell below 0 Celsius).
Meanwhile, 46% reported no blanket usage during winter. The primary reason was access to shelter (50%). For non-blanketed horses who were turned out, 84% had access to manmade shelters; 6% did not.
Most respondents (68%) were from the U.S. Midwest (2% were from Canada), likely because Minnesota social media was used to disseminate the survey, explained Tuszka, adding that the geographical region of residence didn’t impact the frequency of blanket usage.
The participants indicated the following self-reported riding disciplines: recreational 40%; Western 22%; English 20%; other 14%; non-riding 4%. Of note: those that identified as English riders were more likely to blanket their horses than not at 30% compared to 10%, while non-blanketing was more common for recreational riders at 51% compared to 31%.
Can’t We All Just Agree?
Respondents also rated a series of statements on scale of one to five, ranging from somewhat disagree to somewhat agree.
Statement 1: Precipitation and wind affect the horse’s ability to withstand cold. Differences in agreement levels were detected, but most respondents agreed with the statement, said Tuszka.
Statement 2: All horses have the same threshold for cold tolerance. Again, despite some differences in agreement levels, most respondents agreed, either somewhat or strongly.
Statement 3: Blankets can prevent horses from social grooming. Result was an “interesting bell curve distribution with the majority of respondents not having an opinion either way,” according to Tuszka. Different agreement levels were detected and she further noted, “interestingly, those who decided not to blanket were more likely to agree with the statement than those who decided to blanket and vice versa.”
Statement 4: Blanketing shortens the horse’s hair coat. “This had an interesting distribution, with many of the respondents indicating somewhat agree with this statement,” said Tuszka. As with the previous statement, non-blanketers were more likely to agree and vice versa.
Statement 5: Blanketing reduces a horse’s ability to thermoregulate. Another “really interesting distribution” noted Thuska. “Those who decided to blanket their horses fell very closely together within a somewhat disagree, neither and somewhat agree categories.” Again, she added, differences in agreement levels were detected – non-blanketers mainly agreeing more than blanketers and vice versa.
Statement 6: Once a horse is blanketed, they have to use the blanket for the duration of the winter season. “This was very interesting because there was no difference noted in agreement levels,” said Thuska.
To the final question, a full 73% of respondents – whether they fell in the blanketing or non-blanketing category – believed scientific research relevant to the use of blankets would help horse owners and managers make management decisions.
In wrapping up her presentation, Thuska said the study provides “valuable information on blanketing and winter management practices” but, as she and her colleagues suspected when they first set out, respondents didn’t come to any kind of general consensus. Therefore, she concluded, further research is required.