Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Blanketing and Equine Communication

It seems like every year at about this time, the controversy of "To Blanket or Not to Blanket" rears its head.  Advocates on either side staunchly defend their positions and sometimes the dialogue can get downright rude.  I'm a big fan of doing what is best for your horse based on his preferences rather than your own perceptions.  But I think that can be hard to determine for most horse people.  That is why I really liked this study, which taught horses clear communication symbols specifically for blanketing.  The researchers discovered that horses could communicate whether they wanted a blanket to be put on, taken off, or for there to be no change (in other words, if the blanket was on, it stayed on; if the blanket was off, it stayed off).

I really like this idea and I decided to try something with Nimo tonight when I went out to see him.  I have not taught him any communication symbols, but I am pretty familiar with his communication signals after over 14 years of seeing them!:)  In general, he does not like to wear a blanket, and he communicates his dislike by pinning his ears and doing the nose swing at me when I put it on.  However, he does always stand quietly for putting it on and taking if off, regardless of his opinion about the blanket itself.

Tonight, temperatures are dropping to 12 degrees, which is unusually cold for December in this area and definitely the coldest it has been so far this winter.  While I don't normally blanket Nimo in the winter, he still has remnants of the trace clip I gave him in October, so my tentative "rule" is to put a sheet on when the temperature is below 20 degrees.  I use a sheet instead of a blanket due to some past observations that he generates a pretty good amount of heat under just a sheet, so a blanket would probably be overkill.  And I picked 20 degrees because that is the coldest the temperature has been when I've been at the barn and have seen Nimo in his unblanketed state, so I know he's not shivering or hunched with cold at that temperature.  I may revise it downward later in the winter, but for now, that is my baseline.

When I went out to the barn tonight to put his sheet on, I decided that instead of bringing him in from his field and tying him up while I put the sheet on, I would try to put the sheet on in his field with no halter on.  Kind of my way of "asking" if he wants the sheet on.  He would be free to leave if he didn't want the sheet, and I fully expected to respect his wishes if he walked away.

I love how Nimo always greets me at the gate.  I know it's mostly because of the treats he gets, but it's still nice that I don't have to wander all over looking for him:)
He met me at the gate, as usual, and I gave him his usual treats.  I didn't save any in my pocket or give him anything out of the ordinary.  Then I carried the sheet into his field, stood next to him for a moment, and proceeded to haphazardly fling it over top of him (I try to do it gracefully, but it never works - it's always either wadded up at the withers or mostly hanging off of one side).  He stood still as a statue while I adjusted the sheet and fastened all the surcingles and snaps. 

Meanwhile, a fairly new horse in his herd was standing right behind him, very much in his space.  Particularly when I'm around, the new horse tends to get too close and appears to ignore Nimo's clear (even to me, a non-horse entity) signals to MOVE AWAY NOW.  So Nimo ends up chasing or making physical contact (more with his body than kicking or biting) to make his signals even clearer.

Normally, I would be really apprehensive in a situation like that, but Nimo has a perfect track record of never going after another horse when I'm in the middle or even nearby.  He is very careful to wait until I'm clear before he moves.  Still, I wasn't sure how it would play out because I didn't have a halter or lead rope on him, and I had to move around his whole body to get the sheet on.  I kept a close eye on both horses and was ready to move quickly if I needed to, and I also made sure I strategically fastened the sheet so that I did the neck, then the surcingles, and then the leg straps, so that if Nimo did end up moving, the sheet was less likely to get tangled up.

I decided to take Nimo's stillness and lack of response to the other too-close horse as his acceptance of the sheet for the night.  I should note too that the temperature was 28 degrees at the time, and Nimo did not necessarily know how cold it would be getting (although my sense is that animals who live outside do know when the weather is changing, at least to a certain degree).

Ideally, I could repeat this experiment several times during both similar and different circumstances to see if this was a case of Nimo behaving and doing what he normally would do in the barn because the act of blanketing has created a generalized response or if it is truly indicative of Nimo communicating that he wanted to wear the sheet (or at least didn't not want to wear it).  I have definitely "asked" him if he wanted to stay in the barn or be turned out when there is bad weather, and there have been a couple of times when he chose to stay in and others when he chose to go out.  (I ask by putting him in his stall for a few minutes with hay and then opening the door and literally asking if he wants to go out.  If he turns and stays in his stall, I assume he wants to stay in, but if he moves toward me and walks out willingly, I assume he wants to go out.)

It's an interesting idea to further explore and I'd love to hear if anyone else "asks" their horse before putting a blanket on!:)

10 comments:

  1. I usually tell Ashke why I'm putting it on. "Temps are dropping into the teens tonight and its going to be cold tomorrow". There have been a few times when I've gone to put it on and he's flipped his nose at me, but then I explain that "yes, it is warm now, but it's supposed to be 12 tomorrow" and then he allows me to. So far, there have been no signs of sweat under his blanket and he has been a very comfortable temperature underneath when I am taking it off, so I figure he's liking it. Because of the condition he was in when I got him, I can't handle the thought of him being cold.

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    1. I used to have a mare that I double blanketed even when my other horse wore no blanket. The mare had been left in freezing rain for two weeks with no shelter and developed a chronic illness as a result, so I can definitely understand your perspective!

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  2. I like this idea! I don't really give my guys a chance to decide though since they DON'T have shelter. If it's going to be a cold rain that then freezes or steady temps in the teens/single digits/below zero, they get their damn blankets. If they had a sheltered place, I'd give Q and Stan more leeway in the decision probably. Grif grows a subpar winter coat though compared to the rest of the herd, so he'll probably be blanketed forever lol

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    1. I would definitely be more aggressive about blanketing Nimo if he didn't have such a nice run-in shelter. Not that he uses it as much as I would expect, but because it's there, I feel like he can take some responsibility for his own health:) And I think your winter weather tends to be more severe than ours, so I'd probably be blanketing more too!

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  3. I love that study! Ozzy is currently blanketed. JR is not. They've made their preferences pretty clear this year.

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    1. Isn't it amazing how different horses have different preferences? And it's wonderful that yours have an owner who doesn't take a one-size-fits-all approach, as so many do:) Every time I see the charts at my barn with the breakdown for blanketing, I cringe. And I think the trainer there might have tried to shame me into blanketing when temps go below 35 by posting an article that said horses prefer blankets below 35 (which horses? Where do they live? Have they always been blanketed? Are they clipped?) I'm the only one who doesn't blanket so I figured it was directed at me...:)

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  4. When I posted about this recently, I was criticizing an article I'd read that horses lose their ability to regulate their temperature when blanketed, because their heads and necks and legs are exposed, so their body heats up too much, or something. By that reasoning I should not wear a jacket when it's cold out, cuz my head is not covered.

    Lately if I take the blanket off my horse to groom him, he starts shivering. I have to keep his butt covered while I groom.

    I wish the article you shared would have described their technique!

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    1. I suspect every horse is different and it sounds like you've figured out what your horse needs! I think the whole science of blanketing needs to be studied more. I've read that blanketing can cause the horse to lose the ability for piloerection due to the weight of the blanket, but I have not found that to be true with Nimo. I've definitely felt raised hairs underneath blankets.

      You may want to check out this article: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-37450952. This one goes into more detail about how the horses were trained. I was kind of surprised the researchers didn't use clicker training, though. I'm not a huge fan of clicker training, but this is one type of activity that I think it works really well with.

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    2. Yah, whenever someone says they blanket their horse in Winter with just a rain sheet, I always think that horse will be colder than if left naked, because of that. My 250gram blanket definitely flattens Mag's coat, and it doesn't just bounce up again even when we're out riding. However, the belly hair stays fluffy. Out of all the Arabians I've known, he is the one who belongs in the desert the most : ) Or California. Definitely not here.

      I read the second article - thank you - and still don't know how they taught them to associate the symbols with the actions, agh.

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    3. I actually do use just a rain sheet normally. I've found that Nimo does have piloerection under it. Of course, I can't say whether he would be warmer with it or without it, but I've followed the practice since he was a baby, and I've never seen him shivering or acting cold with a sheet on, even with temps around 10 degrees with lots of wind. In fact, one year, I body clipped him in February as an experiment and I left three different weights of blankets for the barn staff, along with a chart on his stall door for what temperature to use each blanket at. They misunderstood and left his rain sheet on and the temperature got down to 7 degrees that night. He was in the barn, so I'm sure it was at least 5-10 degrees warmer, but still. Anyway, he was fine - no evidence of being cold. But that experience made my realize that blanketing and clipping are not a good idea unless I can micromanage the situation. Another horse may very well have gotten hypothermia in that situation!

      Anyway, I switched Nimo from the sheet to a mid-weight (200 grams) blanket last night because temps were supposed to go into the single digits and there would be wind as well. And I admit I kind of wanted to compare the sheet to the blanket. When I checked him tonight, the outside temperature was 16 degrees and he did have a moderate amount of piloerection under the blanket. I didn't feel much difference under the blanket versus the sheet. So, it may just be that horses are different in terms of their responses to the blankets. The amount and type of fill and breathability of the fabric may have an impact too. It would be so great if someone would really study this!

      And for your last point, if I was going to teach this communication to Nimo, here's what I would do. I would first get him to associate a treat with a clicker sound. Once I did that, I could dispense with the treats and just use the clicker so the process would be easier. Then, I would teach him "Blanket off" by putting a blanket on and then putting the blanket off target out, waiting until he touched the "blanket off" target, and then clicking and taking the blanket off. I would stick to just blanket off for a few days until it seemed like he got it. Then, I would teach "blanket on" by introducing a second target and when he touched it, I would click and put a blanket on. Then, I'd wait to see if he touched the target for blanket off and do nothing until he touched it. Then I'd take the blanket off, see if he touched the blanket on target and when it did, put the blanket back on. The hardest one would be the "No change" target, I think. I would introduce that one last and when he would touch the target, I would click and do nothing. Both with the blanket on and off. I imagine most horses would start playing around with the targets so you'd get the opportunity to put the blanket on, take the blanket off, leave it off, etc. Then once that seemed solid, you could try it under real circumstances. The other thing I would probably do is use words to match the targets and what I was doing. So I might ask, "Do you want your blanket off?" And if he touched the blanket off target, I'd repeat, "OK, so you want your blanket off. I'll take it off for you." And the same for blanket on or staying the same. You could probably introduce all three targets right away, too, and just do the action dictated by the target when the horse touched it. That method might be faster than doing one target at a time. Anyway, if you ever teach your horse this communication, please let me know!:)

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