Blanket season is here–are you ready? Check out Kate Samuels’ guide to making sure your horse stays dry and warm in any weather.
Ah, blanket season. It has arrived. Along with blankets comes clipping, blanket changing mid-day due to changing temperatures, constant blanket folding and unfolding, and the un-ending search for the laundromat that won’t notice you bringing muddy and hairy laundry every week. Blanketing doesn’t have to be a challenge, outside of the additional maintenance it requires. However, proper blanketing technique, and knowledge of how horses’ bodies work in the winter is necessary. Here are some basic guidelines that might help in deciding when and how to blanket for the upcoming winter.
During cold weather, the horse’s hair stands on end, which creates an airspace around the horse where it can trap heat, enabling it to stay warm. This insulation will break down when rain or wind are added to the equation. Rain causes the hair to lie flat and wind blows away the warm air trapped in the upstanding hair. But more importantly, this can happen even with the best horse care if a horse is inappropriately blanketed. When a blanket with inadequate insulation is put on a horse during weather, it forces the hairs to lie flat, taking away the horse’s natural insulation. So blanketing a horse inadequately can be much worse horse care than not blanketing at all!
Horses that are clipped or kept in barns under light to discourage winter coat production should be blanketed when temperatures drop below 60º F or when it is windy or rainy. Horses with a moderate hair coat can tolerate temperatures as low as 40º F. If they have a heavy coat, they can tolerate temperatures down to about 30º F. Wet conditions change these temperature limits, so keep that in mind when blanketing!
A horse’s caloric requirements increase dramatically in cold weather. When the outdoor temperature drops below 30 degrees, the average horse burns up to 15-20% more calories trying to maintain body temperature for every 10 degree drop in outdoor temperature. Older horses have to work even harder to stay warm in cold weather. This is why horses need more feed (particularly hay) during winter. But a blanketed horse does not need to burn as many calories simply to stay warm. Hence, blanketed horses don’t need to have their feed rations adjusted as dramatically as un-blanketed horses in order to maintain their weight over the winter.
Not just any horse blanket will do. A horse’s coat is composed of two types of hair, a fluffy, dense undercoat and a stiffer protective coat called guard hairs. The undercoat provides insulation by trapping air and body heat. The guard hairs shed rain and keep the undercoat dry. They also stand on end to create an air pocket that traps heat. If you put a thin blanket (or rain sheet) on a horse, it will flatten the guard hairs, thereby destroying this air pocket. For this reason, blankets need to be well-insulated.
If you plan to ride your horse in the winter (and/or body clip him), blanket him. Body clipping a horse removes his natural means of keeping warm, so you will need to blanket him. If you don’t body clip and don’t blanket, your horse will grow a thick, long coat in order to insulate himself from the cold. Unless you enjoy spending most of your barn time currying and brushing out this very long coat rather than riding, you should blanket your horse. Tacking up time is greatly reduced because your horse will remain clean and dry under his blanket.
Next week….we will explore options when it comes to blanket types and styles, how to properly fit a blanket, and how to care for them in the long term.