It's strange how the everyday practice of blanketing horses causes so much uncertainty in conscientious owners. Stranger still is the degree of passion blanketing arouses among horse caretakers. Some people scoff at the idea of clothing any animal, much less a horse; others are equivocal, pulling out the sheets and rugs occasionally for special circumstances; and still others fastidiously bundle up their horses from late fall to midspring as they would dress their children headed out into a snowstorm. Is one faction right and the others wrong? Is blanketing a boon or a bane to the horses themselves? What are the facts and truths about this wintertime ritual?
To the question, "Must I blanket my horse?" the short answer is "no." The horse generates his own blanket--a haircoat that is long enough and thick enough to withstand the coldest days of winter. It's an adjustable covering that flattens against or elevates above the skin as the horse grows warmer or cooler.
"Hair is a great insulator, and it fluffs up to warm the horse," says Michael Foss, DVM. "Heat rising from the body warms the air, but that air doesn't go anywhere because it's trapped between the hairs."
As for the question, "Should I blanket my horse?" the answer could also be "no," but special circumstances make "maybe" or "definitely" the correct responses for certain classes of horses. Blanketing is necessary for competition horses and foxhunters who are routinely clipped during colder weather to maintain a sleek appearance, reduce sweating, shorten cooling-out time and speed drying after rigorous workouts. Aged horses whose appetites and digestion may not supply enough fuel to keep flesh on their bones and their internal "furnaces" stoked require shelter or blanketing during bad weather.
Relocated horses transported from a warm locale to a much colder climate often need additional covering for their first colder winter. Horses relocated before the autumn equinox have time to grow a woollier coat to match the colder weather, but even then they may not be sufficiently insulted for the new climate.
"I've seen horses come from California to Montana, and the first winter those poor guys just don't seem to have the coat," observes Duncan Peters, DVM. "There's probably a little temperature involvement and something to do with the horses' ability to recognize how much coat they need to grow."
Added to these "must haves" are all the horses who are blanketed mostly for the owners' peace of mind and/or convenience (it's a lot easier to lift off a layer of mud caked onto a blanket than to curry it out of a winter coat). There's no harm done in blanketing for reasons other than the horse's health, but in all cases, the addition of clothing increases your management responsibilities. If you choose to clothe your horse, the crucial decisions aren't the color and style of the "outfits" but your daily judgments about how much protection your horse needs and the best way to protect him from the irritations and hazards that accompany blanketing.
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The Q&A's that follow address 10 common uncertainties facing horsekeepers about when, why and how to blanket.
Q: What weather conditions are hardest on horses? When is blanketing most beneficial?
A: Cold wind causes horses the greatest discomfort and more rapidly saps their energy because it whips away body heat faster than any other condition. Cold rain is a close second, chilling the skin through conduction and flattening of the hairs' insulating loft. "In Washington we get a lot of rain, and it can be below freezing for two to three months, though seldom below zero," says Foss. "But I think that 35 degrees and rain is much harder to deal with than lower temperatures."
Still air, frigid temperatures and snowfall are not particularly chilling to horses already adapted to colder regions. Snow accumulates atop their long winter coats without penetrating to the skin or drawing away body heat. In fact, that layer of snow serves as a sort of insulated blanket over the haircoat.
In extreme or severe weather conditions, shelter--stabling, sheds, windbreaks or other forms of natural cover--are better protection from the elements than a single garment. If you blanket your horse to protect him against wind and cold rain, use a waterproof garment to keep the rain from soaking the fabric and penetrating the haircoat.
Q: Do blankets really prevent the growth of the winter coat?
A: Horses grow two coats each year, beginning just after the summer and winter solstices, and blanketing does not prevent this natural cycle. Exterior temperatures are not the triggers for these seasonal changes and, in fact, your horse's winter coat has begun growing while you're still donning shorts and T-shirts. By the time you think about blanketing your horse, his winter coat is well under way.
A trigger deep in the horse's brain responds to both increasing and decreasing daylight and relays messages to the rest of the body to prepare for the coming season. In mid- to late August, after two months of diminishing daylight hours, the horse's winter coat clears the skin's surface. About that same time, the summer coat begins to fall out, with peak shedding occurring around the fall equinox. You aren't as aware of this annual event as you are of spring shedding because shorter hairs are flying about. Unlike the uniformity of the summer coat, the winter coat is made up of assorted hair lengths, including short, fine hairs and long "guard" hairs. Local climate influences the winter coat's characteristics, so that horses living in the Sunbelt grow shorter winter coats than northern horses.
The winter coat grows until close to the end of the calendar year. The next summer's coat starts sprouting in the hair follicles in January, and by late March the loosening winter coat begins falling out as the shorter replacement hairs move into place.
Blanketing won't prevent the growth of the winter coat, but it does cause the hair to grow in shorter because the environment beneath the blanket is warmer. When consistently covered, the horse's body thinks it's in a South Carolina mini-climate even if the reality is wintry Wisconsin. Blanketing also flattens the hairs, creating an appearance of greater smoothness and sleekness in the naturally more disorderly winter coat. If maintaining a short, sleek coat is your objective, include the horse's neck in your coverage; when left unprotected, the neck hairs continue to grow luxuriantly to fend off the cold.
Q: If I want to keep my horse's winter coat shorter, at what temperature or in what month do I need to begin blanketing him? When can I stop blanketing him in the spring?
A: There's no specific blanketing chronology that guarantees a shorter, slicker winter coat. Blanketing "season" is determined by personal preference along with the local meteorological conditions, such as day length and nighttime temperatures. Sometime in the lingering days of summer and early autumn, your horse's coat begins to look a bit more ruffed up and woolly. This is the time to begin tricking the horse's thermostat into believing he's a south Texan. Daytime conditions are often still sunny and mild at this time, and blanketing horses round-the-clock risks daily overheating. The wise choice is to begin nighttime blanketing with a light cover when overnight temperatures hit 50 degrees or less.
"When I was in Montana, we had 60-degree variations where temperatures went from 85 to 25 degrees in a 24-hour period," says Peters. "Anytime it gets down to the low 40s, especially if you have a major daily temperature fluctuation, it's a good time to start blanketing. In Montana, that can be late September, early October or even August. In California, you may not blanket until November."
The same guideline serves in reverse when it's time to put the blankets away in the spring. Most owners begin weaning their horses of their layers during the daytime and ultimately celebrate the end of blanketing once nighttime temperatures remain above 50 degrees. In northern or mountainous regions, that may not occur until midsummer.
Q: What should I look for in a well-fitted blanket? Are certain styles better suited to particular body types?
A: Evaluating a blanket's fit is a combination of measuring, testing and "eyeballing."
- Blankets are sized by length, measuring from the center of the horse's chest back to his tail. Standard sizes range from 64 inches for small ponies to 90 inches for large draft horses. Careful measuring of the horse you're clothing is the key to selecting a blanket that gives him full, comfortable coverage.
- Withers fit is critical to the horse's comfort and the blanket's stability. A well-fitted blanket rests comfortably over the withers and shoulders and produces no pressure or rubbing as the horse moves or reaches down to graze or feed."You don't want that front opening to lie in the slope of the withers," says Peters. "Anywhere above or below the slope is fine.""Cutback" designs with their U-shaped openings at the start of the topline may be better suited to horses with high withers; high-necked blankets that place the opening midway up the neck rather than at its base are also comfortable for most horses. Flat or low withers pose fitting problems because blankets are more prone to slip around and even roll to one side. Straps encircling the horse's hind legs may prevent the blanket from slipping beneath the horse, but they don't keep the blanket centered. Low-withered horses may have to be fitted with a roller/surcingle to keep their blankets in place.
- Loosely fitting garments are subject to shifting and rubbing and can entangle the horse's legs. Jenny Bates, manager of George Morris and Chris Kappler's Hunterdon show barn, observes that this type of misfit often occurs on horses whose shoulders protrude. "People tend to buy too large a blanket, and it slips back, putting more pressure on points of the shoulder," she says. "In that case I like the blanket to fit higher up around the base of the neck."
- A well-fitted blanket covers the horse's barrel entirely, hanging to below his elbows and stifles. Big-bodied animals, such as warmbloods, may require oversize blankets for full coverage.
Proper adjustment of the fasteners is critical to blanket safety. Adjust the surcingle so that you can slide your flat hand between it and your horse's belly. "If it's hanging down four to six inches," says Peters, "a horse can easily stick a foot in there when he lies down." The hind-leg straps require a little play to allow the horse freedom of movement, but if they are hanging down to the hocks, they, too, can catch on things. To prevent the leg straps from rubbing the gaskins and to make the blanket more secure, either loop the leg straps through one another before fastening them on the same side or crisscross them by clipping them to the opposite sides of the blanket.
Q: My horse's blanket seems to fit well, yet after a few months of wearing it, he has unsightly rub marks on his shoulders. Is there a way to prevent these bald patches or at least to encourage the hair to grow back quickly?
A: Shoulder rubs are not necessarily a sign of an ill-fitting blanket. Just light pressure and friction affect the haircoat, which acts as a buffer to protect the skin from this sort of wear. For some horses, sufficient rubbing may occur in a day's time to change the look of the hair, and irreversible damage for that season's coat can occur almost before you notice. Typically, in the early stages, patches of hair look roughed up or dull, and once the hair shafts are injured, there's nothing that will mend them.
"Conformation makes some horses susceptible to rubs," says Peters. "They are broader through the shoulders." Fitting the horse with another style of blanket may relieve the rubs, but less expensive options can smooth over the few rough spots of an otherwise well-fitting blanket. Covering the horse's neck and shoulders with a stretchy "undergarment"--almost like an equine sports bra--absorbs the friction created by the blanket.
Another solution is to line the blanket with a buffer layer. "I've seen baby diapers pinned to the insides of blankets when people don't want to buy another blanket with a different design," says Peters. Fleece may also be sewn into the front of the blanket as a permanent modification. The simplest approach is a daily spritz of silicone grooming spray on the inside of the blanket to decrease the friction against the hair.
If a horse gets chafed by his blanket, the marks remain until he sheds. Says Peters, "Some people use vitamin E, aloe vera or other creams and ointments [to encourage hair growth], but I'm not sure that any of them helps." Some "cat hairs" may pop up in the bald areas, but the coverage will remain sparse until the summer coat starts to surface in February or March.
Q: Are the benefits of high-tech materials used in blanket manufacture worth the extra expense compared to blankets made from traditional fabrics?
A: The ideal blanket is lightweight; it "breathes" by allowing the passage of air; it's waterproof; it's insulated to hold heat close to the horse; it resists tears and stains and repels dirt. The more of these qualities a blanket has, the better, but these features come at a cost--hundreds of dollars for designs incorporating the same high-tech fabrics and fabrication techniques used in high-end outdoor wear for people.
Horse owners who choose the new over the traditional justify the higher purchase prices because of the reduced costs for blanket repairs and replacement garments. "We used to always use New Zealand rugs [for turning out], but they've become hard to find," says Bates, who has worked at the Hunterdon barn since 1994. "I was forced to buy the newer products this year, and so far, they are holding up. They are also easier to clean."
Q: How can I tell if my horse is too hot or too cold under his blanket(s)?
A: Sweating is the most obvious sign that a horse is overheated, and a blanketed horse sweats first beneath the material, then along the neck and behind the ears. Overheating typically occurs in horses turned out during warming daytime weather in the same heavy blankets needed for still-cold nights. When temperatures rise from early morning teens to midday 50s, horses in heavy turnout rugs are likely to sweat. Blanketed horses who go on a romp or fear-driven run may also work up a sweat, which then turns clammy and cool under their blankets as they resume standing around in the cold air. On days of significant temperature swings from chilly to warm, err on the side of less turnout clothing. Horses can raise their temperature to the comfort zone by moving around or basking in a sheltered, sunny spot, but when blanketed they have no cooling alternative other than sweating.
Cold horses reveal their discomfort by shivering, which is a reflexive action of the muscles generating more body heat. Clipped horses who are insufficiently blanketed for the current weather conditions can become thoroughly chilled, particularly when they are unable to move around at will. Heavily covered horses can become chilled if their own sweatiness or rain-soaked blankets press their hair flat and hold the moisture against their skin. Shivering for an hour isn't a health risk, but over several hours, the horse is sapped of energy, his core body temperature begins to drop, and he becomes increasingly vulnerable to infectious or opportunistic diseases. Blankets alone are not adequate protection for outdoor horses through periods of bleak weather and are no substitute for physical shelter against wind and rain, such as sheds and windbreaks.
Q: How soon can I blanket after riding? Is it safe to cover a horse while he is still sweaty from exercise or wet from precipitation?
A: It's best to blanket your horse only after he has cooled down and his hair is dried. Unless the blanket is permeable, it will trap the moisture closer to his skin, slowing the drying period and lengthening the time it takes for a hot horse to return to normal body temperature. To speed up the drying process you can rub him down with a dry towel. Another tactic is to cover the cooling horse as you walk him with a wool or acrylic cooler, the equine version of a sweatshirt that draws moisture away from the horse's hair and into the fabric, where it then evaporates. You can make do with a blanket of unbreathable material by stuffing a layer of soft straw or hay under the blanket to allow air to pass over the damp coat.
Q: Is there any point to layering blankets according to increments in temperature?
A: A 10-degree temperature change is not cause to pile on more layers or change blankets, particularly when horses are stabled or have outdoor shelter.
In times and locales with significant temperature fluctuations--from 15 to 55 degrees in a single day, for example, or in climates where wintertime lows range from 32 degrees to below zero--you'll need several blankets of varying thickness if you're going to keep the horses comfortably covered throughout the season. Even if a single medium-weight blanket is all your stabled horse needs for the winter, you'll probably find it handy to have an alternate cover in case the primary blanket gets damaged, dirtied or thoroughly soaked.
Greater complexity of blanketing routines--layering formulas and frequent changes--produces management benefits when the horses' comfort and well-being are the guiding principles. At the Hunterdon barn, based in Pittstown, New Jersey, all of the 40-some horses are blanketed except for the turned-out retirees. Each horse has about four blankets, and in the dead of winter, they may wear three layers at a time. "Our horses have very short coats because they are clipped year-round [for competition]," says Bates, "so we have to be conscientious about how they are blanketed. When we layer, we use a cotton sheet on the bottom, then a thick wool blanket with no straps and a Baker blanket on top of that. All horses have different temperatures just like people, and you learn that some horses need less clothing."
Q: Should horses always be blanketed when they are transported in winter?
A: If you've ever stood in an enclosed trailer with several horses, you know that plenty of body heat is generated and retained in that small space. When considering how to dress your horse for the road, be most concerned about his respiratory health, and opt for good ventilation and just enough clothing to fend off chills. The weather conditions, trailer/van type and number of passengers all contribute to the interior temperature.
"We keep the windows open on the van and blanket less," says Bates. "With all those bodies, they get hot on the trucks."
When horses are already reliant on blanketing during their daily lives, they will need some coverage, but a stable sheet or lightweight blanket may suffice in enclosed vehicles. Unclipped, never-blanketed horses may not need additional covers when transported in a draft-free, mostly enclosed conveyance, but in stock trailers or other airy vehicles, they'll need a blanket when temperatures dip to freezing or below.
This article originally appeared in the December 2001 issue of EQUUS magazine.