When to blanket a horse in winter
With all things horses, we can get into trouble when we use words like “never” and “always”, especially regarding horseshoes, clipping, and blanketing. Horses are just as unique as we are, with varying genetics, health needs, and quirks. When to blanket a horse will depend pon the individual horse and isn’t always necessary.
Table of contents
Primary reasons to blanket a horse
Your horse is clipped
- Body clips and trace clips serve valuable comfort and health benefits for many horses. When the hair comes off, it’s time to put sheets and blankets on.
- The blanket style and fill depend on the clip used, the weather, and how much the clip has grown. A horse body clipped in early October will likely have most of the coat grown in again by January.
Not all horses need clipping, not all horses need blanketing.
The facilities use lights to regulate estrus cycles or hair coat
- Horses grow and shed hair coats depending on how much daylight their eyes, and subsequently their brains, register. A horse will not shed or grow a coat when specific barn lighting extends “daylight” hours. Researchers have found that about 16 hours of light, real plus artificial, will prevent the summer coat from shedding and the winter hair coat from growing.
- The amount of daylight also regulates a mare’s estrus cycle. When a horse’s brain thinks it’s still summer, the estrus cycle will continue instead of taking its regularly scheduled break in the winter. This allows horse breeders to control when mares breed and foals are born.
- Blankets must fill that gap when using lights to regulate cycles or prevent winter coats.
Your horse’s hair doesn’t match the climate
- The temperature does not determine how much winter coat a horse will grow. Fjord horses, bred to withstand frigid arctic winters, will still grow a dense coat if they live in the deserts or sunny, warm beach areas. Conversely, “thin-skinned” horses like Arabians and Thoroughbreds bred to perform in much warmer climates will never have enough hair to thrive in harsh northern winters.
- When a horse’s coat doesn’t match the climate, it’s time to clip, blanket, or both.
The coat isn’t waterproof anymore
- With all of the waxing philosophic about sebum and how much shine it creates for your horse, we forget that sebum adds waterproofing to your horse’s hair, too. Sometimes, the sebum isn’t enough, or the rain and wet weather overpower the waterproof properties of the coat. It’s time to add a layer of protection.
- And YES, a blanket will squash down a horse’s coat so the hair is not as insulating. But a blanket adds water- and wind-proofing and can have as much fill needed to make up for that.
Snow? No problem for many horses!
There is no shelter or herd for warmth
- Shelters don’t necessarily add warmth by themselves, but they take away wind. This can help a horse stay more comfortable. Horses in herds will gather together to block wind and share warmth, too.
- Without the option for shelter and a herd, or being the outcast in a herd, may prompt you to add a blanket as a protective layer.
Your horse is losing weight
- In the winter, horses need forage, a layer of insulation, and a strong winter coat. The sun’s hours decline in the fall, and their brains start cascading down hormones to stimulate weight gain and hair growth.
- A horse’s age, health, and how many calories they consume influence weight in winter. The horse’s digestive system uses forage in the hindgut to warm their bodies. Adding blankets may help them use calories more effectively by adding warmth.
- When you notice weight loss, which is easier to do with a weight tape than your eyes, it’s a sign to change something in your horse’s management.
- Hard keepers fall into this category, regardless of age.
Blankets are a grand idea for hard keepers and the youngsters
Your horse is young or a senior
- Metabolism is a funny thing. Old horses and young horses need some help to stay healthy. This could be special feeds, more forage, adding blankets, or a combo. Blankets are easy, effective, and provide instant help.
Simple ways to help your horse stay warm
Skin and coat health
- Your horse’s diet may be the most important thing in winter. A forage-based nutrition plan is a place to start. Slow-feeders are essential to keep the digestive system moving at all times. This helps prevent ulcers, and keeps the hindgut supplied with fuel for warmth.
- The nutritional profile should also reflect proper proportions of biotin, Omega fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals to support healthy skin and hair. This is a must for that waterproofing goodness, sebum.
So much fuzz
- Part of regular grooming includes getting your horse clean. But it’s more. Grooming grants you the opportunity to notice any health changes before they become a larger issue.
- Are your horse’s vital signs normal?
- How is their skin, do you see any signs of infection?
- How do their muscles feel?
- Does a weight tape tell you they are gaining or losing weight?
Add more forage for cold weather
- At some point, your horse may give all of his calories and nutrition to the weather and burn everything for warmth. Adding forage, be it hay, cubes, or pellets to your horse’s daily ration can make up this deficit. Slow feeders for pellets and long-stem hay make this more effective. Plan on feeding more overnight as temperatures drop.
Slow feeders are great all year long
- Water is life, as they say. Give your horse plenty of non-frozen water that’s also clean. If possible, offer warm water. Researchers have found that horses prefer to drink cold water but will drink MORE water when it’s warm.
- Buckets, tubs, and troughs are available with heating elements to make this happen. You could also try a bucky cozy, which doesn’t need electricity and wraps around a bucket to insulate it.
Your horse’s shelter
- Hopefully, your horse’s shelter blocks as much wind as possible. Ideally, there’s comfortable bedding in the shelter, too. This provides supportive footing for standing around, a soft place to rest, and absorbent material for urine.
- And despite your best efforts to make a shelter seem like a 5-star hotel room, your horse may still decide to hang out in the mud and cold and muck.
- Use blankets as needed
- If your horse needs a blanket, provide one! You don’t have to make blanketing an “all or nothing” endeavor. And contrary to popular myth, using blankets will not prevent a horse from growing a winter coat.
Keep all water sources clean and fresh!
What not to do when blanketing
Do not blanket a wet, damp, or sweaty horse.
- Moisture under a blanket creates a perfect scenario for a few things to happen. If your horse is sweaty, adding a blanket will make your horse sweat more. If your horse is wet and cold, blankets keep them wet, and then the blaknet is wet, too. Over time, everything gets colder.
- The risk of sink infections goes up, too, as blankets trap moisture against the skin. This perfect petri-dish is rain rot waiting to happen.
- Help your horse dry by using coolers. Wool coolers are thick, and work quickly, but they don’t launder in a machine. Fleece coolers are also effective, affordable, and easy to wash in the laundry.
This fleece cooler is over the top, quite literally.
Don’t skimp on proper fit
- Blankets that are too small inhibit movement, cause rubs, and are generally uncomfortable. If the blanket is too large, it can slide around and cause rubs.
Don’t let a non-waterproof blanket get wet
- This really applies to when your horse is wearing it. If you suspect that your allegedly waterproof horse outfit needs more protection, there are plenty of spray-on and wash-in products to choose from. Or go shopping.
Pro tips for blanketing success
Be picky about what style of horse blanket you use
- If there’s any chance your horse will wear their blanket outside, it needs to be waterproof.
- Look for large gussets in the shoulder area to provide maximum movement.
- Leg straps can be around the leg version, which you can crisscross under your horse. Other styles use a tail cord, which can catch manure and urine (from mares).
- Ensure the neck style doesn’t catch behind your horse’s withers. Some necks are more open than others. Other neck styles go a little further up the neck, some blanket necks reach to the ears.
- For wacky and unpredictable weather, a detachable neck covering is best. These handy attachments keep more of your horse dry, and boost the fill. A medium-weight blanket becomes a heavy-weight when the neckpiece is attached. It’s the difference between shorts and pants for horses.
- Some styles are available with belly covers and are great for horses that love to roll and sleep in the muck.
Most horses who wear blankets have a few styles to choose from
- Layering blankets can save you some dollars and make blanket changing easier. Ensure the top blanket is adjusted to be larger than if it was worn alone.
- As the weather changes, you can add or subtract layers instead of switching out entire blankets for heavier ones. Sometimes this is the best use of time and energy, sometimes not.
- You may also find that layering allows you to have fewer blankets with less fill, saving some laundry hassle.
More pro tips on blankets here:
How to measure your horse for a blanket
- Use a flexible tape measure. Most height and weight tapes for horses are ideal for this.
- Start measuring at your horse’s neck and chest junction.
- Keeping the tape horizontal, run it over the point of shoulder towards the flank.
- Stop measuring where you want the blanket to end. This could be the middle of his tail, but that’s often too much. Ending as the tape wraps around the haunches gives a pretty good measurement.
- Your measurement in inches is the blanket size. Most brands will vary a bit in size due to the style.
Some wet horses are dandy being wet, others need some help if they are shivering or soaked to the skin.
Notes about shivering, frostbite, and hypothermia
- Yes, shivering is a natural response to a horse being cold. Can this go sideways fast? Yes. It is comfortable for a horse to shiver? No. You can help your horse be safer by assisting them in drying and warming up.
- Hypothermia is a drop in body temperature and is an emergency. Depending on the severity, your vet will follow different protocols. Sometimes warming your horse with blankets is not the way to go and can worsen things.
- Frostbite usually happens at the tips of ears, and sometimes at the ends of the penis. The tissue will die, and your vet needs to help your horse heal.
More on hypothermia here
More on frostbite here
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For waterproofing after you have washed your horse’s blankets:
ADC Veterinary Thermometer, Dual Scale, Adtemp 422 – For easy temperature taking
3M Littmann Classic III Monitoring Stethoscope, Black Edition Chestpiece, Black Tube, 27 inch, 5803 – For finding heart rate and gut sounds