To blanket or not to blanket? That’s a good cold-weather equine question

To blanket or not to blanket, that is the question.

By Dr. Luke Bass, DVM, MS; Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital

The chilly months from late fall to early spring are generally a time of slowed activity for horse and rider, but attentiveness to horse health and management is just as crucial during the cold season. As an equine veterinarian, I’m often asked about blanketing during the cold months.

Primary considerations in horse blanketing are hair coat and environmental temperature. Here is some information that will assist you in making the right blanketing decision for your horse.

First, it’s useful to know that horses have an innate ability to withstand cold and wind, with the important caveat that they need shelter or a windbreak, as well as proper cold-season feed and nutrition.

Blankets tend to compress a coat’s layers, which compromises their insulating properties.  Horses that do not live in extremely cold environments – meaning routinely colder than 10°F – will do well without a blanket, provided they are either stalled during the coldest temperatures or have access to a protective shelter.

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 calories are adequate; most important, provide sufficient forage, typically in the form of hay.  As the horse digests forage, gut activity warms the body. This function, along with the natural insulating abilities of the winter coat, allows your horse to live comfortably in an environment that is not excessively cold, assuming shelter is available.

The decision to blanket your horse comes with pros and cons. A positive aspect of blanketing is that it helps maintain a short-haired show coat, thus decreasing your body clipping time if you are showing during the colder months. Performance horses may need clipping and blanketing to control winter hair growth, so they can exercise without getting too sweaty and so that sweat dries easily. Consider a partial rather than a full clip for the benefits of easily cleaned sweaty areas and heavy hair coat in other areas.

Blankets also are used in icy and snowy weather to keep your outside horse clean and dry, ready for you to ride. For horses living in very cold places – again, places where the temperature is often colder than 10°F – blankets can provide the added warmth needed, especially when protective shelter is not available. Additionally, when a horse is moved from a warm climate to a much cooler climate, a blanket can help the horse become acclimated to the new environment.

Here are a few blanketing tips to follow:

  • Only apply blankets to clean, dry horses.
  • 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.
  • If you have decided to blanket, use the blanket weight that is most appropriate for your horse’s needs and the weather conditions. If it’s 40 degrees, your horse probably only needs a lightweight blanket. If it’s 10 degrees below zero, 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.
  • Remove your horse’s blanket and groom on a regular basis.

Properly cleaning blankets is recommended for longevity of the product, but remember that most are line-dried, so either purchase a quick-drying blanket or have a backup. When cleaning or rinsing your blanket, check all the fasteners and attachments to make sure they are secured tightly to the blanket. A blanket that slips can cause your horse to spook, and may lead to injury.

Unless you are showing your horse, blanketing is a personal decision. The blanket will give your horse added warmth, but in return will decrease your horse’s natural winter hair growth.

Consult your equine veterinarian for more information about horse care through the winter months, and for the latest information on nutrition, dental care, and preventative medicine.

Dr. Luke Bass is an equine veterinarian at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. To contact the Equine Services team, call (970) 297-5000.