To blanket or not to blanket? In the colder winter weather, that is the question facing many horse owners.

Like blankets, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Whether you should blanket your horse depends on the individual horse and management situation.

According to a survey completed by 1450 respondents, 54% reported blanketing their horses during the winter. [1]

Horses that are unwell, older, or underweight typically fare better in cold weather when wearing a blanket as it can help them maintain body condition. Your horse might not require a blanket if they are in good health and can grow a sufficient coat to insulate their body.

Understanding how your horse copes with cold weather conditions and how blankets impact well-being can help you make the best decisions regarding blanketing your horse.

7 Key Tips when Blanketing Horses

Consider the following factors when choosing to blanket your horse or not:

1) Understand your Horse’s Coat Growth

Horses grow coats suitable to the climate to protect them from the elements.

Horses allowed to grow a natural coat stay warm in the winter because individual coat hairs hold air between them to trap body heat. The coat appears fuzzy because the hairs plump up and spread apart to provide insulation.

When it snows, horses’ coat hairs stand up on end, trap air between them, and shield the skin to provide protection and prevent heat loss from the body. Snow can also serve as an insulating layer in cold weather.

Winter coat growth is triggered by changes in the length of the day. In the Northern Hemisphere, winter coat growth begins in late summer. Secondary to the length of day, temperature also regulates coat growth. [9]

2) Understand Thermoregulatory Mechanisms

The equine thermoneutral zone is the range of ambient temperatures at which a horse can maintain its body temperature comfortably with minimal energy expenditure.

Horses are warm-blooded animals that regulate their core body temperature to stay within narrow limits. In cold weather, your horse will burn calories to produce more heat and keep their core temperature stable.

When the environmental temperature falls below the thermoneutral zone, your horse may not be able to produce enough heat to keep up with heat loss.

At these cold temperatures your horce could begin to lose body condition as they burn more calories to maintain body temperature. You may need to change your feeding practices in winter to prevent your horse from losing weight.

The thermoneutral zone varies between different horses and breeds. It is also influenced by the conditions in which your horse lives.

However, it’s important to remember that the thermoneutral comfort zone of your horse is not the same as your thermoneutral zone. Just because you feel cold, it does not mean your horse feels the same way and needs a blanket.

Although beneficial in some equine management situations, the use of blankets can interfere with horses’ natural thermoregulatory mechanisms. [2]

3) When to Blanket your Horse

Horses that live outside year-round are typically able to maintain a comfortable temperature without blankets if they have a sufficient coat of hair and are in good health. All these horses require is adequate feed and access to a shelter or windbreak.

However, in certain cases, blanketing is essential to keeping your horse comfortable. Some horses cannot maintain a comfortable body temperature in colder weather.

Consider using a blanket in the following cases:

  • If this is the first season your horse is living in a cold climate after living in a warm one. Their coat is not likely to have grown thick enough to keep them warm that initial winter.
  • If your horse is older and lives outside. Senior horses cannot thermoregulate as efficiently as younger animals.
  • If you have a foal that lives outside. Foals are not able to regulate their body temperature as effectively as a mature horse.
  • If your horse is underweight or in poor health. Unblanketed horses may lose weight more readily due to heat loss in cold weather.
  • If your horse is clipped for exercise and performance. Horses that are clipped require blanketing as a substitute for lost body hair.
  • If your horse does not have access to adequate shelter. Horses with no access to shelter are less likely to be able to maintain their body temperature in cold and windy weather.
  • If your horse may become wet from exposure to rain, ice, and/or freezing rain. Wearing a blanket can help protect a horse from becoming chilled due to being wet and prevent excess heat loss in cold weather.

Blanketing is not typically advised for:

  • Stalled horses that have a sufficient coat and are kept in a heated barn.
  • Horses that are healthy and have a sufficient coat. A blanket flattens the coat, making it less effective as a natural insulating layer.

4) Choosing the Right Blanket is Important

According to research published in the October 2020 edition of Applied Animal Behaviour Science, the thermal comfort of clipped and blanketed horses depends on the knowledge and ability of human caretakers to provide blankets with sufficient insulation. [2]

Blankets come in various weights and types. It’s not unusual for a horse owner to have several different blankets for each horse. Examples of common types of blankets include:

  • Stable sheets
  • Light, medium, heavy turnout blankets (various weights)
  • Blanket liners (various weights)
  • Rain sheets
  • Fly sheets

General Guidelines for Blanket Selection

Research demonstrates that the degree of warmth provided by a blanket is influenced by its weight.

This was demonstrated by researchers at North Dakota State University by examining changes in surface temperature of the lumbar region of blanketed and non-blanketed horses before and after cold exposure. [3]

Lightweight blankets provide limited warmth. They are suitable for use on some horses when the weather is cool, but not frigid.

A clipped horse may need a lightweight turnout blanket during cool weather whereas an unclipped horse likely wouldn’t need a blanket until the temperature drops further.

When temperatures fall below the thermoneutral zone, a clipped horse may need a medium to heavy turnout blanket at warmer temperatures than an unclipped horse. Such blankets have at least 150 – 400 grams of fill.

Any horse blanketed outdoors should wear a waterproof turnout blanket if there is a chance of wet weather. A horse that gets wet in a non-waterproof blanket will end up soaked and chilled.

5) Keep Your Horse Safe when Blanketing

Blankets need to be used properly, or else they could lead to health and safety issues. Consider the following tips when blanketing your horse:

  • Before blanketing, check to see if the fasteners and straps are securely attached. Loose fasteners can cause the blanket to shift, making the horse uncomfortable and increasing the risk of injury.
  • Make sure your horse is clean before putting a blanket on.
  • Do not put a blanket on a sweaty horse.
  • Remove blankets regularly to groom your horse and check for any rubs or sores.
  • Choose a blanket that can be removed promptly when necessary. If a cold night is followed by an unexpectedly warm day, ensure the blanket is removed before your horse starts sweating.
  • If you clip your horse, pay careful attention to the weather to stay on top of blanket changes.

6) Some Blankets Cause Pressure Sores

Certain types of blankets are more likely to cause pressure sores on your horse, according to a study by researchers at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Michigan.

This study examined the level of pressure exerted on the withers from three styles of blanket including a straight cut, V-shaped front opening, and cutback withers. [5]

The results indicate that blanket style affects force and pressure placed on horses’ withers. Pressure from a blanket that makes contact over the withers may prove sufficient to induce sores.

Blankets with the V-shaped front opening exerted the lowest total pressure force over the smallest area and were least likely to induce pressure sores. [5]

7) Blanketing for Protection Against Insects

Blankets aren’t just for cold weather. In the summer, horses may benefit from wearing lightweight sheets that protect against insect bites.

Flies are not the only insects tormenting horses in the summer. Biting midges of the Culicoides genus transmit diseases ranging from African horse sickness to equine viral arteritis.

Protection from midges requires a blanket covering the head, neck, belly, and back. Fly boots are also helpful for preventing insect bites on the legs.

Sheets offer some protection from mosquitoes, one of the worst vectors of insect-borne diseases in North America. The three best-known diseases transmitted by mosquitoes to the equine are:

  • Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE)
  • Western Equine Encephalitis (WEE)
  • West Nile Virus (WNV)

While vaccines are available for the previously mentioned diseases, there is no vaccine available for another insect-borne illness, Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA). Horses testing positive for EIA are lifelong carriers. [4]

Some horses don’t tolerate wearing fly sheets in the summer heat. Turning these horses out early in the morning before the bugs come out in full force may be preferred. These horses may also prefer being turned out at night in a fly sheet.

Fly masks and fly boots can be helpful if insects bother a horse that won’t tolerate a flysheet.

Factors to Consider When Blanketing your Horse

Keep the following factors in mind when choosing whether to blanket your horse and what blanket to use.

  • The amount of wind and level of sun exposure will affect your horse’s temperature. It will generally be colder when windy and warmer when sunny. Wind and cold rain place the greatest demands on the horse.
  • The length and thickness of a horse’s coat also impact body temperature. The thicker the horse’s coat, the more warmth it will provides.
  • You may need to change your horse’s blankets up to three to four times a day depending on the temperatures inside the barn and out. The outside temperature is more likely to be colder than the inside temperature.
  • Hoods can help keep horses warm. Clipped horses may benefit from wearing a hood as it can protect areas of their neck and head that no longer have hair covering them.
  • Recently clipped and older horses may need heavier blankets to retain their body heat.
  • Turning horses out in light rain with waterproof turnout sheets may be better for health and wellbeing than keeping horses confined in their stalls.
  • Horses typically consume more forage during cold weather to maintain their body temperature. Because blanketing reduces heat loss from the body and decreases net energy expenditure, using blankets may prevent weight loss and lower the amount of hay a horse needs to consume to sufficiently maintain weight. [6]

Beyond Blanketing: Tips for Winter Care

Some horses experience winter laminitis in cold weather. Supporting your horse’s circulation and promoting exercise can help to reduce the risk of this condition.

During cold weather, horses are more prone to weight loss and may benefit from increasing calorie consumption.

Provide your horse with more forage during the winter to aid in weight maintenance. Fibre fermentation in the horse’s gut also produces body heat.

If your horse needs more energy in their diet, use fat rather than grains which can disrupt your horse’s microbiome. Oil’s such as Mad Barn’s w-3 Oil are an excellent source of essential omega-3 fatty acids.

Meeting your horse’s vitamin and mineral requirements is important year-round. The vast majority of equine diets are deficient in one or more key nutrients.

Submit your horse’s diet for analysis and our nutritionists can provide personalized recommendations to ensure your horse is receiving optimal nutrition year-round.

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