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Optimizing a Horse’s Hair Coat During Winter

Learn how to keep your horse’s hair coat healthy this winter through good-quality nutrition, blanketing practices, and grooming.
Some horses might be comfortable in a lightweight blanket all winter, even in bad weather. | iStock

In colder climates horses grow long, fluffy hair to insulate themselves from the weather. Horses begin shedding summer hair in the fall to make way for this new winter hair. This typically happens as soon as the days start getting shorter and the nights longer and cooler.   

Those who plan to show their horses and want them to keep a nice sleek, shiny coat might need to manage those horses differently by keeping them indoors on cold nights and keeping more lights on in the barn (more on this in a moment).

Nutrition for Winter Hair Coat Health in Horses

As many horse owners know, what you feed a horse affects the health and shininess of his coat. “Fat supplements are very helpful for this,” says Carey Williams, PhD, equine extension specialist and director of endocrinology and animal biosciences at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “Horses don’t need a lot of fat to benefit the hair coat, so even the horses that have adequate body weight and condition can be on a very small amount of an omega-3 supplement without gaining more weight.  This can put a nice shine on the coat.”

You can add these fats to your horse’s diet in the form of fish oil, rice bran oil, and flax seed oil, but other supplements exist on the market as well. “Make sure the diet is balanced, however, before you add this kind of supplement,” says Williams. Horses must consume the nutrients their bodies need to maintain body condition—especially in the cold—and support their activity levels before you add supplements.

Blanketing to Prevent Hair Growth in Horses

“Many people start blanketing early in the season, to try to keep the winter hair coat from coming in,” says Williams. “This can help to a certain extent, but a horse mainly grows winter hair in response to the photoperiod (hours of daylight versus hours of dark) rather than whether or not the body is being kept warm.”

Horses in northern climates with short winter days will not completely stop growing winter hair unless you keep them under lights. In some barns managers keep the lights on to extend the photoperiod and prevent horses from growing a winter coat, says Williams.

Some riders clip their horses—whether trace, hunter, body, or other clips—to help them cool down after work and to keep them looking sharp for showing. These horses must be blanketed accordingly since you have taken away that insulation capacity. Other riders blanket unclipped horses to help keep their coats clean and sleek under the blanket for ease of grooming and riding, along with providing extra protection against the cold.

Grooming for Increased Coat Health in Horses

Plenty of good-quality grooming increases blood circulation to the skin surface, which helps keep skin and hair healthy, removes dead skin cells and hair, and stimulates the sebaceous glands, which produce the natural oils that make a coat shine.   

Your management strategy will be different if you want your horse to grow an abundant, thick winter coat for protection against the cold. Retired horses or those on lay-up or in light work might fare best during winter with no blanketing or barn lights and a thick hair coat, but regular grooming is still important because it helps keeps their coats healthy.

Take-Home Message

When deciding whether to clip your horse this winter, consider what type of work he might be doing, if any. Regardless of his hair length, regular grooming and high-quality nutrition are necessary for good coat and skin health. Carefully monitor your horse for signs he might be too cold, such as shivering, and adjust his blankets or bring him in the barn to help him thermoregulate.

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