Jazz, Apollo, and D’Artagnan loved the colder weather. They loved to run and play in the winter months when they were in California. However, winter in San Diego really didn’t get lower than 60°F/15.5°C. But that was probably their favorite weather – sunny and cool.
Once they were moved to Maryland, Fall and Spring were their favorite times, when the weather was in the 60’s. They were so full of ‘spit and vinegar’ and so happy and playful during these temperatures. Not too hot and not too cold.
But now that I have Merlin who was born in Maryland and is going through his first winter, I’ve been doing some more research. Maryland winters last from November to March and the temperatures gradually go from 60°F/15.5°C in November and get down to 5°F/-15°C in February and sometimes colder.
The colder months from late fall to early spring in Maryland are generally a slower time for both horses and humans. I miss the warmer weather in San Diego. So, it’s hard for me to get out and enjoy freezing temps. But we still need to be attentive to our horse’s health and well-being during the winter months as their needs change.
I want to address the tips for blanketing in the winter. I know that blanketing your horse can be a difficult decision. Assessing your horse’s individual needs and behaviors is a very important first step.
In an earlier blog, I discussed my decision to blanket my “California” horses once they were moved to Maryland late in their lives. You can read that here if you like.
But in this blog, I want to get more into the specifics of what happens if and when you blanket your horse. The pros and cons of blanketing.
Some horses are cold-natured and need their blankets and some horses are warm-natured and hate blankets. Some horses live outside all day and others live mostly in a barn. Then you have older horses who have different needs than younger horses.
Plus some horses are over or underweight which changes their needs and some are extremely active and others are not. And some horses are used for showing year-round and are fully or partially clipped. Lots of variations to think of when making the decision to blanket or not.
Usually, horses know when they are cold and will naturally warm up by running around or increasing their food consumption. Research shows that horses that live outside most of the day, at a minimum of 8 to 12 hours, adapt to the cold better. That is the average healthy adult horse.
However there are lots of other questions … if you should blanket, when you should blanket, learning how to blanket, and what kind of blanket to use.
Let’s address the first question – If you should blanket?:
Two of the primary considerations in if you should blanket and when to blanket are hair coat thickness and environmental temperatures. Here are some tips that can help you make the right blanketing decision for your horse’s welfare.
First, I’m sure you already know that horses have a natural ability to withstand the cold and wind much better than us. Therefore, they are not as cold as we are in lower temperatures. However, with the important caveat that they need shelter or a windbreak, as well as proper cold-season feed and nutrition in order to maintain a healthy balance.
I discussed shelter and feed requirements in last week’s blog.
Another consideration that you should know is that blankets tend to compress a horse’s coat’s layers, which compromises their insulating properties. This means that horses that do not live in extremely cold environments on a regular basis, routinely colder than 10°F (like my California horses) – will do well without a blanket.
But they still need to be either stalled during the colder temperatures or have access to a protective shelter. They do get cold in lower winter temperatures, even with their thick fur coats, and need a place to take cover.
Unless you are showing your horse, blanketing is more of a personal decision. You know your horse’s needs and the normal weather conditions for your area.
A blanket will give your horse added warmth, but in return will decrease your horse’s natural winter hair growth. You may also want to contact your vet for their recommendation, especially if they know your horse well.
Feed and nutrition are also factors tied to blanketing because a horse generates body heat through digestive activity. To help your horse live comfortably in cold weather, make sure your horse has the proper calorie consumption.
This digestive activity, along with the natural insulating abilities of your horse’s winter coat, allows your horse to live comfortably in an environment that is not excessively cold, assuming again that adequate shelter is available.
Older horses may also need blankets. Older horses do not generate internal heat very well and can get colder than younger horses. In the same way, very young horses may also need blankets if they are mainly outside in the cold weather because of their size and their body weight to energy ratio.
Here are some Pros to blanketing your horse:
- Blanketing can help maintain a short-haired show coat for performance horses. Therefore also decreasing your body clipping time if you are showing during winter.
- Show horses can be blanketed to control their winter hair growth, so they can be exercised without getting too sweaty and so they dry easier when they do sweat.
- Blankets can be used in icy and snowy weather to keep your horse clean and dry and ready to ride.
- For horses living in very cold weather – again, places where the temperature is regularly colder than 10°F/-12°C – blankets can provide the added warmth needed to maintain healthy energy for weight and growth, especially when a protective shelter is not available.
- When a horse is moved from a warm climate to a much cooler climate as my horses were, a blanket can help your horse become acclimated to the new environment.
If you decide to blanket your horse, here are a few blanketing tips to follow:
- Only apply blankets to a clean, dry horse.
- Use the appropriate blanket for the appropriate use. A turnout blanket is for use during turnout and is designed to be waterproof.
- Horses that live in the elements wearing blankets should wear waterproof and breathable blankets. A blanket that is not waterproof will quickly become saturated, making your horse cold – the opposite of the desired effect with blanket use.
- Use the blanket weight that is most appropriate for your horse’s needs and the weather conditions. If it’s 40°F/4.4°C, your horse probably only needs a lightweight blanket. If it’s 10°F/-12°C, he might prefer a heavyweight blanket.
- Sweating in a blanket on a hot day can be just as problematic as wearing a non-waterproof blanket in wet weather. It will do the opposite of what you want.
- Remove your horse’s blanket and groom on a regular basis.
As a side note:
Please remember to take proper care of your blankets too. I deep clean and make minor repairs to mine every year in the fall so they are ready when my horses need them. Properly cleaning and care of your blankets is recommended to prolong their usefulness.
But remember that most are line-dried, so either purchase a quick-drying blanket or have a backup. You may also want a backup just in case the one you’re using gets ripped or unusable for some reason.
When cleaning or rinsing your blanket, check all the fasteners and attachments to make sure they are secured tightly to the blanket and rust-free. A blanket that slips can cause your horse to spook and may lead to injury as they may get caught up in a broken strap.
Now to the question – When to blanket?:
Research analyzed the benefits of blanketing a horse to reduce the effects of cold weather. It showed that blanketing a horse is necessary to reduce the effects of cold or inclement weather when:
- No shelter is available during turnout periods and the temperatures or wind chill drop below 5° F.
- There is a chance the horse will become wet (e.g. rain, ice, wet snow, and/or freezing rain).
- The horse has had its winter coat clipped.
- The horse is very young or very old.
- The horse isn’t acclimated to the cold.
- The horse has a body condition score of three or less (underweight).
Normally, your horse will continue to develop a natural winter coat until December 22 (winter solstice), as the days become shorter. That is unless they are kept in a barn where you keep the lights on in the evenings. This fools the natural growth of your horse’s hair by mimicking longer days.
Horses normally begin to lose their winter coat (and start forming their summer coat) as the days become longer (starting on December 23). Therefore, don’t blanket your horse before December 22 because this will decrease your horse’s natural winter coat. Nature usually knows best.
When my California horses were moved to Maryland and they were getting used to the cold winters, I used waterproof blankets and I had two types for each horse. One that could be used in below-freezing temperatures, 32°F/0°C and one that could be used in even colder weather 0°F/-17.7°C.
I also watched the weather so when it was sunny and above freezing, I took the blankets off so their bodies could acclimate to the cold and grow more hair. This allowed them to acclimate to the colder weather and each year their bodies grew more hair naturally to keep them warmer.
When it comes to – Learning how to blanket?:
I suggest you look up the video tutorials for the particular blanket that you purchase. This will give you the best procedure for your horse and your specific type of blanket.
Now, for the question of – What kind of blanket to choose?:
In addition to a shelter or stable helping to keep your horse warm, blankets can also be a big help.
Choosing the right blanket for the current weather is important. Winter horse care is all about making sure your horse has the right stuff at the right time for his or her needs and well-being. If your horse is outdoors most of the time, choose a waterproof blanket because a stable blanket (which isn’t waterproof) when wet is actually worse than not having a blanket at all.
If you decide to blanket your horse, indoors or outdoors, you want to make sure to take proper care of your horse’s winter coat as it grows through the winter. If your horse is not a show horse, you do not want to stop the natural growth of his or her coat.
If you are purchasing a horse blanket, make sure you buy the right one depending upon certain conditions.
- If you plan on having your horse stabled most of the winter months, then a stable blanket will be the right decision.
- If your horse is going to be outside some of the time, choose the right blanket carefully. If it is frigid, choose a heavy, waterproof blanket. If the winter temperatures are not too cold, a lightweight blanket will work.
- If your horse is in and out in the winter weather, then purchase a waterproof blanket. A stable blanket will not help and may even make conditions worse if it gets wet.
The best way to check to see if your horse has the correct type of blanket on is to put your hand inside the blanket to feel the temperature and level of moisture on his or her body.
If your horse’s coat or skin feels moist, you may be using a blanket that is too heavy. If your horse’s body is warm and dry, then the blanket is just fine. If it feels cold on the inside, you may need to get a heavier blanket.
The hair coat insulates your horse by trapping and warming the air around it. Wet or muddy hair can reduce its insulating value and increase heat loss. So it is important to keep your horse dry and sheltered from moisture to keep him or her warm.
As little as 0.1 inches of rain or wet snow can cause cold stress by matting the hair and reducing its insulating value. However, a horse with a thicker hair coat can retain more heat. This should be considered in choosing the right type of blanket to put on your horse as well.
You can also help the natural process of winter hair growth by removing the blanket and grooming your horse regularly so you can take notice of how the hair is growing.
Take the blanket off when you can; if it is a warmer, sunny day, remove the blanket and allow your horse to enjoy the sunshine. Take note of the winter chill factor though. If it is 32°F/0°C and sunny it will feel warmer than if it was the same temperature but windy, overcast, or raining. It’s not only the temperature you see on your phone weather app that you have to consider.
If and when possible, try to blanket your horse when he or she is clean and dry. It’s always good to groom your horse before putting the blanket on. Problems can develop when your horse is wet or covered with dirt and mud. Bacteria can begin to grow under the blanket in this case, and that definitely isn’t good for your horse.
Here are some Cons to blanketing your horse:
- Your horse could get injured if he or she gets caught up in a blanket that is incorrectly put on, has broken fittings, or is the wrong fit.
- A blanket that is not waterproof can quickly become saturated, making your horse cold – the opposite of the desired effect with blanket use.
- Sweating in a blanket on a hot day can be just as problematic as wearing a non-waterproof blanket in wet weather. It will do the opposite of what you want. It can also promote bacteria growth under the blanket.
- Blankets tend to compress your horse’s coat’s layers, which compromises their insulating properties.
- A blanket will decrease your horse’s natural winter hair growth.
In truth, most adult healthy horses do just fine without blankets, provided they have adequate shelter from wind, rain, and snow and plenty of forage to help generate heat through digestive activity.
They only run into problems when they become wet and cold, being outside during very frigid weather, or during high winds which separate their hairs and break the insulating barrier of warmth.
And these situations become worse and more traumatic on your horse when they are very young, very old, underweight, not healthy, and/or are not used to the freezing temperatures.
Listen to your horse. If you decide to blanket your horse, but every time you do they take it off and don’t like it – then listen.
Just like my horses…
When they were in California they didn’t want anything, even a light rain blanket on them. But when they were in Maryland in the winter, they were thrilled to have a blanket on. This helped them acclimate to the freezing temperatures that they were not used to.
Then when it got warmer and they had become used to the winters, 3 years later, and their coats became nice and thick, they didn’t need to blanket any longer. And they knew when they needed them and when they didn’t and it was easy to see this in their behaviors.
For the most part, blanketing your horse is a personal preference in order to use what you know about your own horse and keeping him or her in the best health that you can. By keeping your horse’s lush winter coat in tip-top shape, when spring comes, your horse should be in good health and ready to play in the nice weather.