When the weather turns cold, we don’t hesitate to grab a coat before heading outside. Humans have limited means of naturally keeping ourselves warm, after all, so adding layers only makes sense. Because of this, it’s easy to believe that if we’re cold, our horses must be as well.
But is this necessarily the case? And are blankets needed for all horses in winter weather? The answer might surprise you. Let’s get into that more!
How Horses Stay Warm
Before you ever put a blanket on your horse, it’s important to understand how they stay warm in the first place. Unlike us, horses in cold weather have three main methods for keeping themselves warm:
The ability to grow a thick, winter coat. If allowed to do so (without consistent blanketing which can inhibit hair growth), most horses grow an adequate winter coat which naturally insulates them from the cold.
You’ve probably noticed that a horse’s hair coat will even “fluff up” in cold weather – this occurs in order to create natural insulation. Blanketing a fuzzy horse can actually be counterproductive, flattening the hairs and reducing the coat’s insulative properties.
- Increasing body oil production which helps protect the horse’s skin from moisture.
- Consuming more forage to help create internal heat. Forage contains a much higher fiber content than grains, and fiber is used in bacterial fermentation within the cecum and large intestine.
This process produces a greater amount of heat as opposed to absorption of nutrients in the small intestine, which happens when horses consume grains.
A good rule of thumb to follow when feeding forage in winter: for every 10 degrees F it is below freezing, increase your horse’s hay ration by 10%. If a horse doesn’t have enough forage to eat, they will burn calories by shivering in order to stay warm.
Provided that horses have access to some form of shelter to protect them from wind and rain, most horses do fine in winter without a blanket. However, this may not be the case for all horses as we’ll discuss next.
→Highly Recommended: The veterinary-recommended supplement that can help strengthen the horse’s hindgut and improve digestion←
When to Blanket a Horse
Though horses have natural mechanisms in place to help them stay warm, some may have a harder time than others. This includes older horses that may have less efficient digestion and immunity which affects their ability to thermoregulate.
Aside from older horses, other horses that may need a blanket during cold weather include:
- Underweight horses;
- Ill horses;
- Horses that have not yet been acclimated to a new climate;
- Horses that have been clipped; or
- Horses that do not grow a good winter coat for whatever reason.
If a horse does not have access to shelter of any kind, they may need the added protection from a waterproof blanket as well. By the same token, a horse that is low on the pecking order might not be allowed in the shelter by other horses; they might also benefit from a waterproof blanket.
Additionally, body condition plays a role in thermoregulation. Easy keepers are less likely to need a blanket, but hard keepers may burn extra calories trying to stay warm, so a blanket can be helpful for them.
Choosing the Right Blanket for Your Horse
Just as we have a variety of coats and jackets to choose from, depending on our needs and the type of weather, we have these same choices for our horses as well. There are three main types of blankets for horses. In some instances, you may want to purchase all three types for your horse.
Horse sheets generally don’t provide a lot of warmth, however.
Blankets are bulkier, containing fill to help hold heat in. The amount of warmth a blanket provides is measured in grams of fill and you will want to choose one depending on your horse’s needs and your particular climate:
- Light weight blankets with up to 100 grams of fill;
- Medium weight blankets with 150-250 grams of fill; or
- Heavy weight blankets with 300+ grams of fill.
Waterproof blankets are needed for any horse that will be turned out while blanketed.
For extremely cold temperatures or horses that need extra protection, you can also add a neck rug or hood (which comes with a face covering as well), as well as insulated leg protection.
How to Measure a Horse for a Blanket
In order to effectively keep your horse warm and not cause chafing, the blanket needs to fit your horse properly.
The most accurate way to determine your horse’s blanket size is to measure along the side of their body from the center of their chest straight back to the edge of their tail.
Make sure to measure along the widest part of their shoulder and hindquarters and this number is the size of blanket you’ll need.
Horse measuring tapes, which are flexible and similar to a seamstress tape, are the best tool for this job. These types of tapes are also helpful when estimating your horse’s weight.
Horse Blanket Care
Though we may rarely have to wash or repair our own coats, this isn’t the case with horse blankets which need routine care.
Non-waterproof sheets and blankets can typically be washed with normal detergent in a commercial sized washing machine, but waterproof blankets need extra care so the waterproofing isn’t stripped from the fabric.
Use detergent specifically designed for horse blankets which won’t compromise the waterproof layer. There are also a number of individuals or companies that offer blanket cleaning and repair services if you wish to go that route instead.
In Summary: Blanketing Do’s and Don’t’s
As you can see, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to blanketing horses. While many horses in cold weather conditions do just fine without a blanket, some horses can benefit from wearing one. Just make sure you’re using the right type of blanket for your horse and the weather!
If you do use horse sheets or blankets, then there are a number of things to keep in mind:
- Do choose an appropriate blanket for your horse and the conditions they are living in. As noted before, all horses wearing blankets outdoors need a waterproof blanket.
- Do practice good blanket hygiene as a wet or dirty blanket isn’t good for your horse. Wash and replace blankets as needed.
- Do check blanketed horses daily. If a horse is sweating, the blanket is too warm and needs to come off. Also make sure the blanket isn’t chafing the horse in any one area. Check leg straps and buckles to make sure they are still fastened correctly. Horses that are blanketed long-term need to be routinely checked for weight loss or gain as well.
- Do check your horse’s withers often to make sure that the blanket isn’t rubbing or chafing this area.
- Don’t blanket a sweaty horse (unless using a cool out sheet). Let them cool off after exercise before putting on a blanket.
→Highly Recommended: Protect your horse’s gut health this winter and in other times of weather stress with this veterinary-recommended supplement←