Should your horse be blanketed?

The temperature is dipping, and you’re wondering if you should put a warm winter blanket, or ‘turn-out rug’, on your horse. Chances are if the weather is ‘wintery’ but not windy or wet, your horse probably doesn’t need a blanket. As long as your horse has access to good quality hay and fresh water, the heat generated by its digestive system, and the natural protection of a thick winter hair coat will probably keep it comfortable in weather that would send you running for a warm jacket, but there are several acceptions, and they should not be ignored. Blanketing a horse is necessary to reduce the effects of cold and inclement weather when:

  • There is no shelter available during turnout periods and the temperatures or windchills drop below 5 degrees F.
  • There is a chance the horse will become wet (not usually a problem with snow, but much more of a problem with rain, ice, and/or freezing rain).
  • The horse has had its winter coat clipped for showing.
  • The horse is very young or very old.
  • The horse has not been acclimated to the cold (e.g. recently relocated from a southern climate).
  • The horse has a body condition score of 3 or less, or is ill.
  • When it does not have room to move about, to encourage healthy circulation.

Just as important as when to blanket, is the fit of a blanket. Poorly fitting winter blankets can severely chafe or cut a horse’s skin. If winter blankets aren’t made of breathable fabrics, the horse can sweat underneath and become uncomfortably wet. Likewise, horses left blanketed when the weather turns mild will be uncomfortable. Coolers, sheets and stable blankets aren’t suitable for outdoor turn-out. They often lack the straps and fasteners that prevent outdoor blankets from shifting. It is important that the blanket fit the horse make sure you have the correct size to fit the horse.

  • Horses can develop rub marks or sores where the straps securing the blanket fit improperly. If the horse is continuously blanketed the blanket should be removed regularly to inspected for damage and reposition due to twisting.
  • Make sure blankets are kept dry and do not put a blanket on a wet horse; wait until the horse is dry before blanketing. Or take a wet blanket off a horse to keep it from becoming chilled.
  • Days that the temperature becomes warm remove the blanket so the horse dose not sweat and become wet under the blanket. Air out the blanket and dry out the horse’s hair coat.

The equine hair coat acts as insulation by trapping air, however, if the hair is wet or full of mud, air is excluded, reducing its insulating value and increasing heat loss. As little as 0.1 inch of rain can cause cold stress by making the hair and reducing its insulating value. It is important to keep the horse dry and sheltered from rain. Wooly horses with a thicker hair coat can retain more heat …so sometimes it is better not to blanket.

Perhaps your horse(s) gallop to the furthest corners of the paddocks and proceed to be difficult to catch, when they catch sight of the blanket in your hand. This may be an indication that a blanket is not currently needed. If the horse(s) appear to be more agreeable upon your approach, they may be viewing the blanket as needed relief from the weather. In the end, you must use your best judgment as to whether or not you believe the blanket is needed. Remember that just because you are cold, that doesn’t mean your horse is cold too. Let your horse’s behavior and physical condition be your guide.

Credits, for some of the content in this article, go to Marcia Hathaway (October 2012, Univ. of Minn. Horse Newsletter) and to Drs. Foster & Smith.

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