Winter arrived hard and fast in mid-November this year. Did you find yourself rummaging around for a turnout horse blanket? Was it cleaned and repaired after last winter and ready to use? Maybe your horse had already grown a thick, protective coat making a blanket unnecessary. The perennial question, to blanket or not, is one most equestrians grapple with when cold Northern winds blow.
How does blanketing affect the horse’s winter coat? While it is true that a blanket will flatten your horse’s naturally fluffy coat, it isn’t necessarily a permanent change. Some experts will suggest that wearing a blanket for more than a week weakens the insulating value of the winter coat. Some heavy winter coats will fluff up a few days after the blanket is removed. If your horse’s coat remains flat after several days, you may be committed to blanketing for much of the cold season.
Check underneath regularly. If your horse wears a blanket most of the winter, it is important to remove the blanket at least weekly to look for rub sores, body condition, lumps, and skin health. This is true for non-blanketed, fuzzy horses too. Those with PPID (pituitary pars intermediate dysfunction, aka Cushing’s) and horses with dense, long winter hair need a hands-on physical exam weekly too. Winter hair and blankets can hide weight changes, skin issues, or injuries. Dig your hands down through the thick winter hair to feel for condition changes to avoid surprises when the winter hair sheds out.
Weather - Rain and wind are primary considerations for the horse. Mid-south horses aren’t likely to experience extremely cold temperatures as winter weather here tends to be wet and moderate. Just as a blanket reduces the winter coat’s natural insulating value, a wet coat has almost no insulating value. As we all know, wind makes a body feel cold, so providing a wind- and rain-proof shelter will help your horse keep warm, blanketed or not. Many horses like to stay out of a run-in shelter even when provided, but will find the side that blocks the wind. Some horses stand out in the rain because of noise on the shelter roof. Horses are prey animals that rely on their hearing and sight for safety, so they can be nervous under a noisy roof. Providing a waterproof blanket will keep your hose dry and warm until the sun is back out.
Relocating - Horses that move from deep south to far north and visa versa, can take a few years to learn how much coat to grow in the winter. If you recently purchased a horse from the deep south, you may have to use a blanket for the first winter if temperatures fall below 41 degrees. Horses have a lower critical temperature that ranges from 41 degrees for horses acclimated to mild climates, to 5 degrees for unclipped horses in extreme northern climates. When the thermometer falls below these temperatures, a horse has to expend energy to maintain it’s body temperature. A blanket will not only keep the horse warm, but also avoid the need to use calories to maintain his temperature.
Weight of Blanket - Temperatures here can swing widely from nighttime to afternoon. While a mid to heavy weight blanket might be appropriate when temperatures dip into the 20’s, the sun can bring temps into the 40’s or higher during the day. Over blanketed horses will sweat and a wet coat is chilling. Many horses can have their blanket removed on a warm day and then used at night as needed. Having a variety of blanket weights (sheet, medium fill and heavy fill) will keep your horse comfortable as temperatures go up and down. Putting a cooler (fleece or wool) on your horse if he is sweaty after riding will keep him from getting chilled as his hair dries. Never put a turnout blanket on a wet horse; he will tend to stay wet. When using a blanket outdoors it’s important to use one labeled “turnout” that has rain resistance. No horse wants to wear a wet blanket!
Brushing - Putting a blanket on a muddy horse is like having a pebble in your shoe. A good brushing will not only make your horse feel better but will avoid skin irritation caused by wearing a dirty blanket. It’s also good to make sure the blanket is relatively clean too. Horses love to roll in the mud and blankets get muddy too.
Blanket washing - Blanket washing and repair services keep your blankets in good condition. A garden hose can remove excess mud and a few hours in the sun should dry the blanket, but an annual, thorough cleaning prolongs the blanket’s life. Specifically formulated blanket washing soaps are available, as are re-proofing solutions to restore the blanket’s water-proof qualities. Protect your blanket investment with a little annual maintenance to enjoy years of use.
So, to blanket or not? It depends on several factors. Will your horse be used frequently this winter and get sweaty? Maybe a partial or full body clip is in order and then blanket as needed. Does your horse have the winter off? His natural hair and a shelter should be enough. No shelter and rain or snow are predicted? A waterproof blanket will keep him dry until the weather changes. Is your older horse having difficulty maintaining weight? A blanket will keep him warm so calories aren’t used for heat. Young horses and sick horses also benefit from blanketing during particularly wet or cold weather. A warm horse is usually a happy horse, so keep your eye on the weather forecast and your equine partner will thank you.