Friday, January 5, 2018

The Great Debate

Everytime it gets cold, the Great Blanket Debate begins anew.  There are those who passionately believe that blankets are unnatural, and no horse or donkey ever needs one.  There are those who just as passionately believe that all donkeys and horses do need them.  Like most things, the truth lies somewhere in the quiet middle.

Does your donkey really, truly need a blanket?

  • If he is younger than 4 years old or older than 20, he will likely benefit from a blanket when the weather is extreme.
  • If he is younger than 1 or older than 25 and facing an unusual cold spell, he needs a blanket.
  • If he has other health issues.  Ramsey and Ben are good examples.  Ramsey had a nearly fatal hoof infection when he was 4 months old.  He had surgery at Cornell followed by 6 months of intense follow-up care.  He has arthritis issues stemming from that time.  He had Lyme disease two years ago that exacerbated the arthritis.  He had another tick borne disease last year.  In cold weather, he gets sore and unhappy.  Keeping him warm drastically improves his quality of life.  Ben also had a bad tick borne illness last year that caused major muscle/joint pain and triggered laminitis.  He has also just been diagnosed with Cushing's, which causes immune system depression and interferes with the body's ability to regulate temperature.  Animals like this need all the help they can get.  They will survive without a blanket, but there is difference between surviving and thriving.
  • If your critter is shivering he needs a blanket.
All of that should be fairly obvious, but what about healthy, adult donkeys with good shelter and feed?  Do they NEED blankets when we have a horrible cold snap like this?

If they are in good condition and are well acclimated to bad winters, than no they do not NEED blankets.  They will survive and the chubby ones may even shiver some extra weight off and be healthier for it in the long run. 

Do those healthy, adult donkeys WANT blankets in this horrible weather?    

The answer to that mostly depends on the donkey, where he is and how good his shelter is, but many donkeys will be happier with a blanket during prolonged cold. 

Physically, horses are much better able to adapt to sudden changes in temperature than donkeys are.  Donkeys can handle a wide variety of temps, but it takes them longer to adjust.  Horses have extensive vasculature directly under their skin that allows them to either dispel or conserve body heat.  Donkeys do not have this same vasculature.  Their bodies are more adapted to getting rid of excess heat than in conserving it.  They grow very thick coats, but it is a coarser coat that does not hold heat as well as a horse's short, dense coat.  

Will a healthy donkey survive some bad weather?  Yes.  Do they like being cold?  No. 

Some signs or reasons that your donkey may want a blanket:
  • Not wanting to be touched in cold weather.
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Exercise: This is critical to the health of all equines.  If your donkey will go out with a blanket and brave the elements instead of hiding in the barn, this is a good enough reason to blanket.
Even if they only make it a couple hundred feet before they wimp out and head back to the barn.  Even that little bit of exercise can help keep the bowels moving in the right direction and anyone who owns equines will know how important this is.

  • Sleep deprivation.  People tend to look at me funny when I say this, but it is very true.  Equines can doze standing up and it is true that they require less sleep than many other animals.  However, they DO need to be able to lie and go into a deep sleep every day. If horses or donkeys don't feel comfortable lying down, they will become increasingly sleep deprived and will eventually fall down.  The extreme version of sleep deprivation is pretty obvious, but the more subtle signs include irritability and an unbalanced stance when dozing.  

I saw Emma doing this last week.  She was standing in the barn door, hind leg cocked, head down, dozing, but she also had one front leg cocked and she wobbled a bit when her head drooped.  The reason that she was not lying down was because she was cold.  Not long after putting her blanket on, she laid down and slept hard for over an hour.  

Random video of sleep deprived horse from YouTube, this is what Emma was doing: 

So, does Emma, my healthy, adult, fat donkey NEED a blanket? 

No.  I know she will survive without one and may even lose a few pounds doing it.

Does Emma like her blanket?

YES!  She is far more relaxed and happy wearing it.  She does not sweat under it so I know she is not too warm.  

I am well aware that wild horses and donkeys survive just fine (mostly, until they don't) without our help.  However, these are not wild donkeys.  They are not living in a climate that they are suited for.  And, the average lifespan of a wild horse is 12-14 years.  I want mine to live 2-3 times that.  

Blankets are an unquestionable hazard, especially if they don’t fit well.  They require daily monitoring and attention.  They need to be taken off and put back on as the weather changes.  They increase the maintenance required for daily donkey care.  If you are OK with all of that and you feel better knowing your beloved friends are warm and toasty, than go ahead and blanket your fat, healthy, adult donkeys.  All of you will enjoy the company and attention blankets require.  As long as a blanket won't cause harm than peace of mind for the owner is a valid reason to blanket.  

Most of us own donkeys because we love them.  We worry about them, we lie awake at night wondering if they are OK.  If putting a blanket on your fat, healthy donkey will make you feel good and make her happy, then do it.  If it helps both of you sleep at night, what is wrong with that?  

Which is why Emma is wearing a brand new blankie tonight even though I should be making her shiver off some of her extra pounds.  


  1. Thank you for being a voice of reason.

  2. Nice article! You really should write for a magazine. Irish needs all the help he can get so he’s blanketed. Carmen would probably e okay but we get so much wet weather that I blanket her too.

  3. My goodness, more stuff I didn't know - - and more fodder for your book. Particularly interesting was the vasculature system under a horse's skin; and I had never heard that horses needed to lay down sometimes to sleep. How are Tessa and Hawkeye faring? Rebecca2

  4. I agree that the answer is in the middle. For the most part, as long as the animal is not too hot or too cold, I don't care what people do. Personally, I prefer no blankets when possible. It's easier and less likely to go wrong. Horses (I don't know about donkeys!) are better off getting too cold than too hot so if I'm going to mess up, I'd rather under blanket than over blanket. With that said, JR, my fat, furry Morgan pony, was blanket-less during yesterday's blizzard. He was happy as a clam, eating a ton of hay, not shivering, and chose not to go in the shed. Ozzy (my standardbred) is younger, but is neurologically compromised and a bit of a hard keeper. He has and loves his blanket AND uses the shed more frequently. Whether I blanket or not always depends on the specific weather, farm set up, and individual animal! I don't understand why people need to get so... rabid... about this particular topic!

  5. Also, have you seen the study where they teach the horses to signal if they want blankets on or off? Many of them DEFINITELY *want* their blankets, even though they wouldn't die without them.

  6. It's a never ending debate, for sure. Thanks for another post with a healthy dose of reason & solid information!!

  7. Great article Kris! A couple of things I also consider are whether or not the donkey is already wet - if yes and I think they need a blanket, then I definitely dry them off first. I guess that would depend on whether or not your blanket wicks away moisture. I have rain sheets and I also have fleece liners - I have never used them both together but it's an option.

    Also the condition of the skin: if there is any evidence of rain scald or ring worm a blanket will make things worse. I rarely blanket but I do bed deeply with straw.

  8. Just let the animal decide. I have two horses who shiver in the cold, and are clearly more comfortable with a blanket. The others (have thicker coats) and are content, and I have one that will always pull her blanket off (obviously, she doesn't want it on).

    People have a tendency of thinking they know what's best for everyone (and everything) else. A little "paying attention to detail" goes a long way!