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Should Horses Be Blanketed In the Winter

As the weather turns colder, I see my horse seeking out morning sun spots more frequently.  Obviously, standing in the warm sun rays feels good but as winter approaches should I start blanketing him to help keep him warm?  

There is much to be said and many opinions on the matter of blanketing horses.  Through personal experience, lots of research and plenty of fact checking, I have found an answer.

In all but the most extreme climates, healthy horses that are acclimated to their local weather and have grown a thick coat of hair do not require a blanket to keep warm in winter.  However, a good shelter and free access to hay and water are essential in keeping an un-blanketed horse warm.  

Since we all live in different climates with different circumstances, let’s talk in detail about when to use a horse blanket and when your horse is better off without one. 

How do I know if my horse is cold 

Before putting a blanket on your horse, you must first ask this question.  Is my horse cold?  Since horses can’t tell us when they are cold, a few simple observations should give you a clue.  The first and most obvious sign is visible shivering.  Even horses get cold enough to shake and quiver in the cold like we do.

Temperatures on the thermometer are a good starting point for determining whether or not it’s too cold out, but knowing if a horse is acclimated to that weather is even more important.  A horse used to living in cold climate is just fine at 40 degrees whereas a horse that has just been brought from a warmer location may start to shiver.      

Another clue to watch for as temperatures plummet is hair growth.  Is your horse growing a thick, fluffy, winter coat?  Or are they lacking in coat quality with thin, wispy growth?  If the latter is the case, they may benefit from the added insulation of a blanket.  

Weight loss is another indicator that cold temperatures are taking a toll and it may be time for a blanket.  Keep in mind that it is also a sign that your horses nutrition may be lacking.  It’s important to remove their blanket frequently so you can check for weight loss as well as skin issues like rain rot or excessive dander. 

At what temperature does a horse need a blanket

Blankets are a good choice in some circumstances and knowing when to put one on your horse is important.  The following chart is a great guide to help you decide when blanketing your horse makes sense.   Just remember to take into account the age, health, work load and local conditions for your horse.  My horse may need a blanket when your horse is perfectly fine at the same temperature.

Unclipped, Healthy HorsePartial Clipped, Healthy HorseFull Body Clipped, Healthy HorseYoung, Old, or Sick Horse
No BlanketAbove 40°FAbove 50° FAbove 60° FAbove 50° F
Sheet30-40 ° F40-50° F50-60° F40-50° F
Light Weight20-30° F40-50° F40-50° F40-50° F
Mid Weight10-20° F30-40 ° F30-40 ° F30-40 ° F
Heavy WeightBelow 10° F20-30° F20-30° F20-30° F
Heavy Weight + LinerNot needed10-20° F10-20° F10-20° F
Heavy Weight + Liner + HoodNot neededBelow 10° FBelow 10° FBelow 10° F

When you should blanket a horse

Healthy horses in their prime that are acclimated to their environment do not require blankets. However, there are several reason when it is more appropriate to blanket a horse.  Let’s go over five of the most common case in which you should definitely blanket a horse.  

1. Clipped Horses

Horses that continue to have high performance levels during the winter are often prevented from growing a thick, winter coat because of grooming requirements and sweat management.  Show horses, for example, are routinely clipped to keep their hair shorter because they look sharper and are easier to keep clean.  There are seven body clipping patterns ranging from unclipped to fully clipped.  The amount of hair removed is going to affect your horse’s ability to stay warm in cold temperatures.  An appropriate blanket weight is imperative for keeping these horses warm even when kept inside a barn.

2. Young Horses

Winter born foals are usually kept inside a well-bedded stall out of the wind and weather and therefore don’t require a heavy blanket.  If it an especially cold year or the barn is prone to drafts, a blanket will help them retain body heat.  Foals should wear a blanket if turned outside for short durations in winter.

3. Older Horses

Older horses have a harder time growing a thick, healthy winter coat.  Fewer hairs trap less body heat.  Providing a blanket helps make up for the lack of a fluffy coat.  Older horses also have slower metabolisms which mean they will have harder time generating warmth from the food they eat.  

4. Sick or Unhealthy Horses

Sick horses should go into winter wearing a coat for obvious reasons.  A body that’s trying to fend off a virus or heal a wound can be overwhelmed if also required to maintain enough heat all on its own.  A horse that becomes sick in the middle of winter will benefit from the same theory.  Depending on how long it takes them to recover, the blanket may be able to come off without having hindered their winter coat.  If their coat has greatly flattened or started to shed, it should remain on for the rest of the season.

5. Early Blanketing

Putting a blanket on a horse too early in the season will hinder their hair growth.  Growing a winter coat is dictated by waning sunlight and dropping temperatures.  If you place a coat on your horse in early fall due to a sudden cold snap it hinders these natural indicators and their hair will stop growing.  Once this happens, you will have to leave their coat on all winter (with frequent on and offs of course) because their hair will not grow as thick this year.

How to tell if my horse is too warm under his blanket

Now that you know how to tell if your horse is cold, how can you tell if your horse is too warm under his blanket?  Based on the chart above, general temperature ranges can help you decide if the blanket your horse is wearing is too warm.  There are also several visual cues that indicate the blanket should come off. 

The first thing you should check is whether or not your horse is sweating under the blanket.  Pull the blanket back or run your hand underneath along their chest and back.  They should be completely dry.  If any moisture is present, remove the blanket and allow it to dry completely.  Give your horse a good grooming to help dry out his coat so he doesn’t get a chill.  Allow your horse to dry fully before replacing with a lighter weight blanket. 

Horses love standing in the sun and soaking up its warmth.  If your horse is wearing a blanket and is avoiding the sun, this can mean they are too hot.  Like all animals, horses expend energy on things that make them comfortable.  If it’s cold, they will stand in the sun.  If it’s hot, they will find shade.  

If you ever notice steam rising from underneath your horse’s blanket, this is two-fold.  First, your horse is definitely warm enough to create steam but the down side is that steam is only present when your horse is wet.  You should remove the coat and dry both it and your horse.  Even though he is warm enough right now, staying wet will cool him down later as the temperature drops overnight.        

How to keep a horse warm without a blanket

Blankets are only one way to help keep a horse warm.  Again, healthy horses in their prime that are acclimated to their environment do not require blankets.  A good shelter and free access to hay and water are essential in keeping an un-blanketed horse warm.

Horses grow thick, fuzzy coats that trap in their body heat.  The hair must stick up in order to keep that warm air around them.  This is why a good shelter that protects from rain and sleet is so important.  If a horse has no option to get out of the rain, their hair will slick down and be less effective at trapping in warm air.

Easy access to forage in the form of hay is imperative for horses during the winter months.  A horse’s number one mechanism for staying warm is through metabolizing their food.  If they are constantly eating, they are constantly producing heat.  

Fresh water is another basic, yet important, factor when it comes to keeping your horse healthy and warm.  Interestingly enough, cold weather contributes to dehydration because of increased metabolism.  Horses should have access to clean water at all times.  

Best winter blankets for a horse

You may not intend to blanket your horse this winter but it is a good idea to have at least one mid-heavy weight blanket on hand just in case.  There are numerous brands and styles to choose from so, let’s go over the basic things you should look for when purchasing a blanket for your horse. 

Length – Horse blanket sizes are done in inches. You will need to measure how long your horse is and having a soft measuring tape makes this job easier. A string that is measured afterwards also works.  Make sure your horse is standing square and place the beginning of the tape in the center of your horse’s chest.  Run the tape along their side over the widest part of the shoulder and hip, angling up until you reach the edge of the tail.  This measurement in inches is the blanket size. If the measurement is between sizes, go up to the next size for a better fit.  A properly fitted blanket prevents shifting and rubbing.

Neck & Chest Fit – I’ve discovered the most important feature to look for in a horse blanket is the neck and chest fit.  A standard horse blanket sits just in front of the withers and leaves the neck free.  Stay away from blankets that have material going partially up their neck.  On my horse, this extra material made it hard for him to walk.  Every time he steps forward his neck naturally rises pulling up on the coat.  When the coat pulls up, the fabric around his chest gets tight and restricts his ability to walk forward.  The idea of more neck coverage is appealing but make sure it actually fits your horse.  Go with a separate hood if you feel neck protection is necessary.    

Tail Panels –  Horse blankets come with and without tail panels.  Both styles keep your horse warm but I found one style keeps my horse cleaner.  And it’s not the one you think.  Blankets without tail flaps are cleaner, not from pasture mud, but from their own manure.  When a horse poops, they normally lift their tail out of the way.  With built in tail panels, they can’t lift their tail high enough and the manure runs down their tail, legs and the inside of the tail panel itself.  Save yourself the trouble and get a coat without tail panels.  

Material – Blanket material is another aspect to consider.  There is cotton, polyester, quilted, canvas, waterproof, etc.  The list goes on and on.  If you live in a cold but dry state, for a heavy weight blanket, quilted is the way to go.  They are extremely warm, breathable and comfortable.  If you live in a cold and wet location, I highly suggest getting a waterproof blanket.  These come in all warmth ratings and are vital in keeping your horse warm and dry in a wet environment.       

Conclusion

Horses live outside all year long and they adapt to all weather conditions.  Blankets are a great option for horses that need extra help staying warm throughout the cold season.  Just make sure to check it often and groom them frequently.  

Don’t be afraid to let your other horses go without a coat this winter as long as they have a thick, fuzzy coat, good shelter, and plenty of hay and water.  Fresh snow on the back of a fluffy horse is a pretty picture indeed.