Cold-Weather Horsekeeping: A Blanketing FAQ

Your equine might be a real “clothes horse,” with blankets and sheets galore. But unless he watches the Weather Channel and can dress himself, you’re probably wondering what he should wear—and when—as the mercury plummets.

Or perhaps you’re confused about blanket sizing, how to tell when your horse is too cold (or too hot), how to foil equine Houdinis … the list goes on.

Here are answers to some common questions about equine outerwear.

When should I blanket?

There are many opinions on when to start and stop blanketing a horse, but a few agreed-upon basics. Generally you should blanket if your horse:

  • Is body-clipped and in active work during the cold months (when having a long coat would make it difficult to cool him out properly)
  • Is old, thin or ill, with a diminished resistance to illness
  • Has recently moved to a cold climate from a warm one
  • Lives outdoors in severe weather with minimal shelter

A good rule of thumb is to consider blanketing your horse when the temperature starts dropping below 50 degrees, and consider removing his outerwear when it climbs back up above that mark. Remember, too, that wind and freezing rain are particularly hard on equines.

What types of blanket does my horse need?

When planning your horse’s outfits, keep an eye on the forecast—but be prepared to change his clothes!

Most equine wardrobes start with a lightweight stable sheet or blanket for daytime wear and a heavier stable blanket for nighttime. Investing in several sheets and blankets of various weights allows you to stay flexible and rotate them when they need cleaning.

If your horse spends much time outdoors, sturdy turnout gear is a must. Look for sheets and blankets with an outer shell that is both waterproof and “breathable” to keep the rain off without trapping perspiration.

To determine the relative warmth of a sheet or blanket, check the amount of insulating polyfill (usually expressed in terms of grams) and the garment’s temperature rating. Blanket liners and hoods offer added protection against the elements.

As with your own clothing, think in terms of layers. When the temperatures fluctuate, as often happens during the autumn and spring, putting a sheet on your horse with a mid-weight blanket over it is a practical alternative to using a single heavy blanket. When you layer in this fashion, you can simply remove the outer layer(s) when the weather warms a bit.

You might also consider using a quarter sheet under your saddle when exercising your horse. This allows his back muscles to adjust gradually from the warmth of a blanket to the colder temperatures outside as he gets moving. After your ride, throwing a cooler over your horse could prevent him from catching a chill while cooling down.

What size blankets, sheets, etc. should I buy for my horse?

Because your horse might live in one form of outerwear or another all season, a good fit is essential. A blanket that is too small will cause rubbing, chafing and sore spots on the withers, chest or hips. By the same token, a blanket that’s too big is prone to slipping and twisting, which can lead to tangling and injury.

Blanket sizes are generally the measurement, in inches, from the center of the horse’s chest back to his tail. When a horse falls between sizes, it’s usually best to round up.

A blanket that fits a horse well covers his barrel and hangs below his elbows and stifles without overwhelming him. Big-bodied individuals, such as warmbloods, might require a slightly larger size, while horses with unusually high withers will benefit from cutback styles. Shoulder darts, forwardly-placed side gussets, fleece or foam padding at the withers and spacious tail flaps are features designed to improve fit and comfort while decreasing the likelihood of rubbing.

For safety’s sake, adjust each surcingle loosely enough to slide your flat hand under it, but no looser. Hind-leg straps—removable, elasticized ones are best—should be slack without hanging down to the hocks. For added security, criss-cross them or run one through the other.

How do I know whether my horse is too hot or too cold in his sheet, blanket, etc.?

A blanket that’s too heavy for the weather can cause overheating, which leads to sweating. This traps moisture against the skin, which can lead to unhealthy chilling. Check for dampness by routinely slipping a hand under the blanket in the areas of the girth and flanks.

A horse that’s too cold shivers. A lot. This might happen because he got wet under a too-heavy blanket, and then became chilled; or because he’s inadequately blanketed (or has inadequate shelter) for the conditions. A horse that is turned out can warm up by moving, but he can’t gallop around forever. Any sustained reduction in core body temperature makes a horse more vulnerable to illness.

Ouch! How do I prevent static “zap” when blanketing?

It’s not fun when you go to remove a horse’s blanket and both of you get “zapped” by static electricity. This is common during dry winter weather and can make your horse leery of his blankets!

One old trick is to rub a dryer sheet—the kind that reduces static cling in your clothes—over your horse’s back before blanketing him. You might also try spraying the inside of his blanket and the surface of his grooming brushes with a static guard product.

Increasing the moisture content of your horse’s coat (without actually dousing him with water) can also help. To achieve this, use humectant-type shampoos and conditioners, or spritz a light coat polish on his hair before blanketing.

Another alternative: Consider purchasing polar fleece horse clothing made with a special anti-static technology.

My horse (or his pasturemate) chews (or rips, or removes) his blanket. What should I do?

Horse blankets are expensive, so having to address more than the usual wear and tear can be frustrating. Turnout sheets and blankets are especially susceptible to destruction and outright removal by clever equines.

To minimize damage, invest in a blanket with an outer shell of at least 1,200-denier triple weave or ripstop weave fabric. This type of fabric holds up better than most to sharp objects and errant teeth. For the ultimate in protection, some blankets have shells of high-denier ballistic nylon or an outer layer treated with Teflon coating.

In addition, there are various products on the market that can be sprayed on the blanket to discourage chewing. For extreme cases, a neck cradle or blanket bib might do the trick when the horse is stabled.

For equine escape artists determined to remove their own blankets, look for a style that fits snugly while still allowing freedom of movement. High necks, closed fronts or padded, V-front closures are other deterrents. Rubber stoppers on surcingle closures can help, too.

Last but not least: Keep your horse’s blankets clean and in good repair to prevent little problems from turning into big ones. 




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