Blanket or no blanket: Looking to horses for answers

Is it a good idea to blanket horses during winter? Since I moved to southern Ontario with its freezing rain, blanketing has become a part of my winter management.

Putting on a blanket before a freezing rain is a no-brainer. Cold and wet isn’t fun for me and I wouldn’t expect it to be for horses either.

But I often struggle with my blanketing choices in the shoulder seasons. I wonder when to start blanketing in the fall and when to stop in the spring. I’m sure I’m not the only horse owner with this dilemma.

I also wonder about those sunny days in the middle of the winter when the sun feels hot but it is well below freezing. If only our horses could communicate what they want.

Researchers in Norway may have a solution to the blanketing dilemma. They trained 23 horses of various breeds to touch symbols for “no change”(blank), “blanket off” (vertical bar) and “blanket on” (horizontal bar) using clicker training, a positive reinforcement training method.

This means that correct actions were marked with a quick “ya” in this study and then rewarded with a treat. Researchers used a step-by-step training protocol in which a horse mastered each step before moving on to the next.

The early steps involved the following actions: touch the board with its muzzle, touch the symbols on the board with its muzzle and then learn the association between symbol and blanket status.

For the last step, the trainer showed the symbol for blanket on, the horse touched it and then the blanket was put on. This was repeated for the blanket-off symbol.

The next steps in training were heat and cold tests. Horses were blanketed and allowed to get sweaty, then given the choice to select blanket off or blanket on, with blanket off being the correct choice.

Then they were put out in cold weather and then given the choice to select blanket off or blanket on, with reward for choosing blanket on.

This step emphasized the consequences their choices would have on their comfort.

Eventually, the horses could indicate their choices to wear a blanket or to go blanket-free. The researchers then trained the horses for the symbol “no change”.

Once the training was complete, the horses were given the opportunity to select their choice in a variety of different weather situations.

Amazingly, all horses learned to indicate their preference in less than two weeks with short 10 to 15 minute training sessions per day. Also, they indicated their preference for wearing a blanket in cold, rainy weather and to go blanket-free when it was warm.

Their choices were not random. This is more than just a neat party trick — the horses understood the consequences of their selection.

Researchers found the horses were eager to learn. They shared an anecdote of horses attracting their attention on a hot day when they were sweating under their blankets and giving the signal for blanket off.

The study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, breaks new ground in our understanding of horse communication.

The researchers also point out that the technique could be used to learn about other preferences.

Perhaps we can train horses to indicate their preferences for a variety of management issues that may have important impacts on welfare.

For instance, does your mare prefer shoes or barefoot? Does your gelding enjoy being turned out with Patches instead of Buddy? Should you put on its fly mask or leave it off?

The study adds to a growing appreciation for horses’ ability to learn and understand. It also shows the power of positive reinforcement training like clicker training.

Finally, since the horses did show their preference to wear a blanket in cold weather, it gives me more confidence to go ahead and blanket my mare in weather that I think is cold — at least until I can train her to show me what she’d like.

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger is a veterinarian who practices pathology and a PhD student at the Ontario Veterinary College. Twitter: @JRothenburger

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