As the days grow colder and shorter, you may wonder, “Should I blanket my horse?” You’re not alone. But before you rush out to buy a new turnout blanket, consider whether blanketing is the right choice for you and your horse. Many factors should influence your decision whether to blanket, from the weather and your purpose for blanketing to your horse’s body condition and more. Deciding whether to blanket your horse can be a tough call – so let’s take a quick look at how to help your horse cope with cold weather.
BACK TO BASICS
Most healthy horses begin growing a winter coat as soon as the days get shorter. Equipped with this winter coat, many healthy horses cope well without ever wearing a blanket, while other horses may need extra protection. Some horse owners may choose to prevent their horses from growing a winter coat, and that’s when blanketing becomes an absolute necessity.
TO BLANKET – OR NOT TO BLANKET
According to Matt Lovell, D.V.M., a general practitioner with Tennessee Equine Hospital North in Gallatin, Tenn., there are two main reasons for blanketing horses.
“There can be instances where conditions may be too cold or too harsh, and the horse may require some external protection,” Lovell explained. “Or you may want your show horse to be slick-haired or body-clipped, so you’ll need to blanket him.”
If you intend to show your horse during the winter, your horse might benefit from a shorter hair coat. If so, you’ll have to provide your horse with a source of artificial light to stop his winter coat from growing.
“As the daylight gets shorter, the horse’s nature is to grow hair,” Lovell explained. “What’s been shown to prevent that is 16 hours of continuous daylight or the equivalent, preferably ultraviolet light, which can be on a timer in the stall.”
By “tricking” the horse’s body into maintaining a sleek hair coat with lights, or by body-clipping a horse, you remove the horse’s natural defenses against the cold – so you’ll need to supplement that with a variety of blankets, including blankets of different weights and materials. Depending on the weather, you may also need to change your horse’s blanket daily.
“People who blanket their horses need to be available to check their horses at least twice a day, and preferably three or four times a day,” Lovell said. “You want to keep your horse comfortable, not too hot and not too cold. One way is to go by how you feel. If you’re in the same environment as your horse for more than an hour and you feel hot or cold, you might need to use your judgement and have a horseman’s eye for how your horse may be feeling.”
Horses who live outdoors in their natural winter coats may still need a blanket, depending on where you live, but there are other ways to keep your horse warm. All horses who live outside should have access to a three-sided shelter. Feeding good-quality roughage, such as hay or winter pasture, can also help keep your horse warm.
“Any digestion creates heat, so horses that are standing around eating hay or on pasture are continuously digesting fiber and roughage and creating a continuous warming process,” Lovell explained.
These measures may be enough to keep your horse warm and comfortable even on cold nights. But if you live in an area that experiences harsh winters, like Shelley Paulson of Buffalo, Minn., you may still need to blanket your horses against extreme temperatures. Shelley owns two horses, a 15-year-old mare named Fritzie and a 27-year-old mare named Maggie Sue.
“Just last year, Maggie Sue came in on a colder, rainy day, shivering,” Shelley said. “I’ve never seen her shiver from cold before, so it was a signal that I needed to start thinking of her blanketing needs differently from Fritzie’s. This year, I bought a lighter, fleece-lined blanket for those rainy days before it gets cold enough for her heavy winter blanket.”
THE BOTTOM LINE ON BLANKETS
Like all aspects of horse care, it’s important to be intentional with blanketing – and to keep an eye on your horse’s overall comfort level. Daily swings in temperature may mean you have to change your horse’s blanket several times a day to keep him comfortable. You should also check your horse daily for sores or skin infections, as well as to keep an eye on your horse’s weight and overall body condition over the winter. Your horse will thank you!
QUICK TIPS :
BLANKET REPAIR: Toward the end of summer, pull your blankets out into the sunshine and give them a good once-over. Make sure all the straps and buckles are in good repair; if not, get them repaired or replaced. After you’ve used your blanket for the last time in the spring, get it cleaned, repaired, and properly stored for the season!
BLANKET FIT: Check your horse’s blanket fit on a regular basis. If your horse has gained or lost weight, the fit of his blanket may change. An ill-fitting blanket can cause discomfort, including sores and other issues.
DAILY BLANKET CHECK: Take your horse’s blanket off at least once a day to check for sores or chafing. Look for broken hair shafts or places where the hair has been roughed up – those may signal potential problem areas. After inspecting your horse, flip the blanket open to look at the inside and see if you spot any unwelcome travelers (like cockle burrs, beggar’s lice or bits of hay) that need to be tended to.