Every fall as the temperature drops and daylight shrinks, you have a decision to make about horse care. Whether you’re a new horse owner or a seasoned pro and whether your horses live outside or you tuck them in every night inside a cozy barn, you must choose to blanket or not to blanket.
And if you do blanket, what blanket(s) and when to change them comes into play. It’s never a case of throwing a single type of blanket on your horse and assuming the animal is good to go. Blanketing is an important horse welfare issue; it can be complicated and can cause harm if done incorrectly.
Let’s start with the most basic question: do horses need blankets at all?
Simple answer is, probably not. But it depends. We said it gets complicated, didn’t we?
Let’s begin with what nature does without human intervention. Horses are well-equipped to handle the cold and the heat on their own and are able to thermoregulate, which means to keep the body temperature within normal limits. When it’s hot, horses will sweat and seek shade or a breeze. In the cold, horses grow a winter coat, they huddle together for warmth and seek shelter out of the cold, wind and rain. (Learn more about thermoregulation here.)
Come winter, if your horse has a thick, healthy, clean coat and is well-fed with a good body condition score, and has access to shelter, you don’t have to blanket. A healthy horse will use its own winter coat as insulation. The longer hairs literally “fluff up” to trap air close to skin and provide insulation.
Having said that, not every healthy horse should be without a blanket. If you clip your horse, then it must be blanketed – there is no debate about it. And you will need to invest in a wardrobe for your horse from waterproof shell to lightweight, medium, heavyweight and a stable blanket (more on blanket types below).
But it’s not just the clipped horse that needs extra help; an older or younger horse, or those with metabolic issues that affect hair growth and non-native animals that have recently been imported from warmer climates will also require blankets. Likewise, a horse who has always been stabled but is spending its first winter outside will need blanketing.
Now that you’ve decided to blanket your horse, there are other factors you need to do understand, such as fill and denier. Say what?
Fill refers to the amount of stuffing in the blanket and manufacturers measure this in grams. A typical rain sheet has no fill or 0g. Medium blankets range from 150-225g and heavyweight blankets range from 250-370g and anything over that is considered a ultra or mega heavyweight.
Denier refers to the strength or density of the nylon fabric which will tell you how durable and water-resistant it is. This varies blanket-to-blanket and you’ll see 600D to 1200D; the higher the number, the more dense the fibre and more durable the blanket. So a low-denier for stable or show is fine, but if your horse is living outdoors and has boisterous pasturemates, then you want the higher density for protection and endurance.
There are several reputable websites that offer up a chart that indicates temperature ranges for fill/denier of blanket needed. This one from SmartPak is handy and has a great blanket guide. We also love the extensive blanket tool from Equine Guelph that allows you to create a check list and gives horsemanship basics for owners heading into our Canadian winters such as cold weather increases a horse’s metabolic rate, so they will need more food to keep warm and maintain weight.
There is a also section on blanket type and fit. Fitting a blanket is important to the comfort of your horse, as an improperly fitted rug can rub and create sores.
Other helpful tips include when buying blankets you need to take into account things such as your horse’s personality – and we don’t mean will he prefer polka dots or stripes, but if he will shred his blanket and therefore rack up bills for replacements and repairs, or calmly graze and hopefully leave it in one piece.
Assessing your horse’s environment, what is the stable temperature like? Will he be outside and have a good run-in, or is there no shelter? If a horse is stabled overnight, he will need a stable blanket and then a waterproof liner or insulated turn-out sheet on top for pasture time, increasing the fill/denier as the weather gets harsher.
There is also the basic rule or “best practice” to never turn out your horse with a damp coat, as it will get chilled to the bone and get sick. It is like if you left home with wet hair and walked around in sub-zero temps. Cool out and dry off your horse after every ride!
Having a wardrobe of blankets means that someone needs to be around to change them when the weather shifts, which it does frequently in fall and spring. Beware that over-blanketing is also dangerous and considered a welfare issue that can cause over-heating and heat stress. It is wise to opt for less fill rather than more if you’re unsure or aren’t available to swap it out should the weather warm up suddenly.
Blanketing your horse is a responsibility to be taken seriously. You need to watch the forecast and plan ahead when you can. The bottom line is you need to do the research and evaluate your personal situation and the needs of your horse in order to make the best decision on blankets.
Stay warm out there!
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