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To Blanket or Not to Blanket

By: Ann Compton

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As cold weather nips at different parts of the country, the question of whether or not to blanket once again rears its head. Just because we bundle up for the winter months doesn't necessarily mean that horses should. Sometimes a blanket can do more harm than good.

If you are considering blanketing a horse for winter work and have not begun to do so already, you may have missed the boat. Chances are the horse already is beginning to resemble a yak. The growth of horses' coats is governed by diminishing daylight rather than temperatures so you need to begin as soon as the days shorten if your goal is to inhibit winter hair growth.

You can, of course, clip the horse. This is essential if you plan to show through the winter or even if you plan to board at an indoor facility and keep riding. Once you clip, though, you have made a commitment to also blanket. Clipping removes the horse's natural defense against cold, and blankets then become a necessity.

However, if you lay low in the winter and only hack or ride lightly, most veterinarians and experts recommend leaving a horse in his natural state. He is, after all, designed to withstand subzero temperatures.

Horses, as you've seen by now if you haven't clipped them, grow thick coats of hair that tend to stand up noticeably in the morning when it's colder. That's because warm air is trapped near their skin by their coat. This coat not only keeps them warm, but repels moisture as well. It's nature's Gore-Tex.

Most people give horses daylong turnout in the winter and stable them at night. The horses probably would be just as happy out of doors, but putting them inside makes most owners feel better. As long as you provide shelter, such as a run-in shed preferably facing south, horses can happily spend the winter months outside unblanketed in most conditions.

When Blankets Are Needed

In addition to clipped horses, blanket your horse in the following situations:

  • Horses who are ill or recovering from an illness.

  • Horses that have experienced weight loss.

  • Horses from warmer climates that are not acclimated to colder temperatures.

  • Older horses, especially if they are thin, have reduced mobility or have a sparse coat.

  • Horses that are outside when the wind is howling and a cold rain is falling often need a weatherproof blanket.

    You can read a horse's signals and decide if he needs help to stay warm. If he looks uncomfortable, stands stiffly with his head down, or is shivering, he's feeling the cold. Keep in mind that it takes two inches of blanket loft to replace one inch of natural coat. So if a horse is wooly and healthy and has access to hay to fuel his "furnace," you won't want to blanket him except in extreme outside conditions. Blanketing him will flatten his coat like rain does and may make him colder.

    If you don't need a ready-to-ride horse all winter, the best way is definitely the natural one. A good daily brushing is all the unblanketed horses need, while their stable mates who are covered may require several clothing changes a day – from nighttime stable wear to turnout to rainwear.

    Choosing a Blanket

    With so many available, selecting a blanket can be a daunting task. Most people need at least two blankets per horse. The type of blankets you purchase depends on the needs of you and your horse.

  • All-purpose turnout blanket. If you blanket a horse for daytime turnout and then leave for most of the day, you need an all-purpose blanket because one never knows what Mother Nature will throw your way while you are gone. Your blanket must accommodate a warm Indian summer day as well as a snowstorm. This is a tall order.

    And even if you have the luxury of being at home with your horses while they're out, you probably won't want to chase them around the pasture to change their clothes if rain threatens. So a good, versatile turnout covering is the single most important blanket you will buy.

    The two most important requirements in a turnout blanket is that it is "waterproof " and "breathable." So whether your horse opts for a roll in the snow or you have one of those unseasonably warm days, it won't matter.

    If, after a good romp around the paddock, your horse is hot and sweating under his blanket, it's an invitation to illness. That's why a blanket that "breathes" is so important. Moisture is allowed to evaporate while keeping him warm, so he doesn't get chilled. And, if it rains or snows, a waterproof blanket will keep him dry.

  • Stable blanket. Although many horses spend most of their time in a turnout rug, most people prefer changing to a stable blanket for nights in the barn. Barns usually are warmer and the stable blankets are less bulky, allowing horses more flexibility to lie down. Most boarding facilities staffers will either change blankets or put the turnout rug over your stable blanket each day. Some facilities charge extra to do this.

  • Coolers. Whether your horse is clipped or not, you will need a cooler after riding. Irish sweatsheets are extremely versatile and can be used year-round in conjunction with heavier coolers for winter weather. Polarfleece coolers are a good choice because they wick away moisture, allow the horse to dry quickly and are washable.

    Buying a Blanket

    Until recently, the only turnout blankets that were "breathable" and "waterproof" were Rambo rugs. Although Rambos are still the best, there are a number of other manufacturers that offer the same functionality for slightly less cost. Millers (800-553-7655) offers a terrific blanket catalog that rates horsewear by temperature and durability in a broad range of prices. The Libertyville Saddle Shop Stable and Ranch catalog (800-872-3353) carries the durable and cost effective ThermoMaster in a range of weights.

    When blanket shopping, it's also important to take into account a horse's natural tendency to aerate his clothing. Blankets don't work well with 10-inch gaping holes. If your horse is rough on blankets, buy "ripstop" material. Blankets with higher "denier" (material strength) will be tougher – for instance, a 1,000 to 1,200-denier blanket will withstand equine antics better than a 500-denier model.

    Turnout blankets should have elastic leg straps, to keep them from shifting. Always loop the second leg strap through the first, then clip it on the same side and adjust. This prevents rubbing.

    Look for turnout blankets without a topline seam so water doesn't seep in; a tail guard; crossed surcingles and shoulder gussets to offer flexibility and prevent rubs. Locking surcingles and velcro at the chest opening are pluses.

    The gram of insulation stuffing you choose should depend on how much warmth a horse requires. If he's a Florida thoroughbred, look for a higher number; for example, 300 or higher grams per yard to provide maximum warmth. Lower numbers provide less insulation, but will be adequate if your barn is warm or your horse doesn't require that much protection. Channel quilted patterns allow more loft to retain heat.

    When shopping for a stable blanket, look for lining fabrics that will not rub your horse's coat. Nylon ripstop is best, and stronger than nylon taffeta. If your blanket isn't lined, you can purchase a piece of satin and stitch it into the shoulder area where rubs most commonly occur. You also could use one of the spandex shoulder protectors that are worn under the blanket.

    Each manufacturer's blanket fits differently, so be sure to measure your horse accurately before ordering. Most catalogs include instructions for measuring. And check the return policy so you aren't stuck with a blanket that doesn't fit.

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