How to Blanket a Horse in Cold Weather
By Lynn Baber
Whether you live in the balmier south or frigid northern slopes, you may wonder when, or if, you should provide your horse with equine clothing. Pasture horses with easy access to shelter from wind and precipitation, whether liquid or frozen, seldom need a wardrobe to keep them comfortable and healthy. Many horses do need a little help, especially when you try to keep their winter hair coat to a minimum. Here are blanketing tips that cover most of the basics.
For horses with adequate shelter, let nature handle the matter. Be sure to provide a place your horse can stay dry and out of the wind. If you have a horse that has not wintered with you before, make sure they grow an adequate hair coat. Sometimes it takes a year for a horse to get acclimated to a drastic change in climate - or from the show barn to the pasture.
Why blanket a horse?
The first thing to understand is how a horse stays warm in cold weather. The long hairs of a winter coat create an air layer providing insulation against the cold. The only reason to put a blanket on your horse is if they do not have an adequate hair coat to properly insulate. So, we blanket horses because they do not have winter coats.
Blanketing itself does little to retard hair growth. The amount of continual light the horse is under each day determines whether or not they grow a winter coat. For horses stalled under lights, blankets are necessary because the horse is prevented from growing their own insulating layer.
Related: How to Weigh Your Horse Blanket Options
Don't blanket a horse with a good winter coat
Putting a blanket on a horse with a good winter coat is actually counter-productive. The weight of the blanket lays the hair down, eliminating the loft, the air layer of natural insulation. If you know what "hat hair" is – where your hair is pasted down by the weight of your hat – that is what a blanket does to a long-haired horse. If you put a blanket on, you have to leave it on until it gets warm enough for the horse to get their own coat fluffy again.
When should the blanket come off?
You must balance the amount of hair your horse has with the temperature to determine how heavy a blanket to use and when to take if off daily. For horses with thin hair coats, you may need to remove the blanket and put on a sheet to keep them comfortable during the day if it warms up. The test is to have a heavy enough cover to keep the horse warm but never hot.
When in doubt, put your hand under the blanket at the horse's shoulder. If your horse feels warm you need to get the blanket off! Never, ever let a horse sweat under a sheet or blanket.
Related: How to Waterproof Horse Blankets
Many times it is good to dress horses like people do, in layers. It makes sense for stalled horses with slick coats to wear a sheet under a blanket. The blanket goes on and off as the temperature changes. If you have medium weight blankets and experience an unusually cold period you can add a light sheet over your blanket to tide you over until the weather moderates. Whenever possible, every horse should have part of each day free of blankets to let them exercise and air out.
What kinds of blankets are best?
There is a huge variety of blankets available today. My favorites have a nylon lining to keep the coat slick and shiny. Kersey or wool linings tend to scuff up the hair. The three most important things to keep in mind are:
- Proper fit (including strap adjustment)
- Proper weight
- Elastic straps
Blankets and sheets must fit well around the neck, not bind at the shoulder, and be long enough to cover the top of the tail. I would not use any blanket without rear leg straps.
All of my blankets have been modified so they accept elastic leg straps with snap ends. The most frequent repair done to blankets is replacing rear straps. You will reduce potential injury to your horse as well as future repair bills by buying blankets with removable rear leg straps.
To fit the blanket properly, be sure there isn't pressure on the withers or that shoulders are too snug. Another common mistake is using a blanket or sheet with an excessively large neck opening. Loose blankets can bind up shoulders and certainly offer little protection to the chest.
If your horse will be pastured or allowed to exercise in their blanket, a turnout design is the best choice. Turnout blankets have shoulder gussets that allow your horse freer movement than a blanket with a traditional cut.
Proper strap adjustment
Every horse is different, but here are a few general rules. Crossed rear leg straps help keep the blanket centered on your horse. If the blanket fits properly, the leg strap should just barely miss the ground when hanging loose from the back of the horse before attaching.
Rear leg straps that are crossed will be adjusted to a different length than those that don't cross. Straps must be loose enough for your horse to easily get up and down, but not so loose that they can catch a hock in a strap and cause serious injury. Rear leg straps made of elastic are much more forgiving if not adjusted just perfectly.
The bellyband, surcingle straps, or belly strap should hang down about four inches below the horse's belly when buckled. Again, this is a general rule. Too tight and the blanket may tear or your horse could get cut by the strap (I've seen serious lacerations from tight belly straps made from webbing material), too loose and your horse could hang a hind leg in the belly strap.
Finally, keep your sheets and blankets as clean as possible and in good repair. Even if your blankets don't get really filthy, if you don't wash them at least a couple times a year the stitching ends up rotting and you will have to get new ones just because they weren't cleaned often enough. Horse clothing is expensive. Elastic straps are the number one way to keep blankets in one piece and ready for the next year; washing when necessary is the second.
If you should need to blanket your horse, use that time each day as a special moment to share with your horse. Always brush off dirt and shavings before putting on your horse's blanket, ending with a good rub. There is just something satisfying about tucking your equine partner in at the end of the day. Happy trails.
Related: Clipping 101
About the Author
Whether the topic is personal success or training stallions, Lynn Baber brings years of experience to readers and audiences. Highly credentialed in issues of leadership, relationship, and most things equine, Lynn has a unique perspective not found elsewhere. Lynn's career included business consulting, work as a motivational speaker, and high-level success as a horse breeder and trainer. Lynn is now a writer and director of Amazing Grays Ministry. Follow her blogs, articles, and books by visiting her website.
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Main Photo: Robin Duncan Photography