Written by Morgan Hall under the direction and review of Sara Mastellar.
Many people often picture winter as a fun time, when they are able to enjoy the glistening snowflakes and winter sports. However, when most horse owners think of winter, they think of added work: scooping snow, chopping ice, and other winter chores. Cold temperatures require many horse owners in the Midwest to trade in their horses’ flysheets for winter blankets. However, some horse owners believe it is better not to blanket horses, letting their natural hair coat provide protection from the cold. So what is really best for the horse? Should they be wearing a blanket? If so, at what temperature is it needed? Do horses even like to wear blankets? Let’s consider some of the keys to ensuring horse health and comfort with the use of blankets.
According to a Norwegian study, horses sometimes prefer to wear their blankets, under certain conditions (Mejdell, et al., 2016). In this study, horses were taught to touch boards with different symbols on them, according to what they wanted a human to do with their blanket. Each symbol represented an action—blanket on, blanket off, and no change (Mejdell, et al., 2016). The 23 horses in the study, of various ages and breeds, successfully learned how to communicate using the symbol boards within two weeks (Mejdell, et al., 2016). When asked what the horses preferred, their choices were in fact dependent upon the weather (Mejdell, et al., 2016). The horses in the study chose to wear their blankets during harsher weather conditions, such as wind and cold temperatures, and go “naked” when the weather was warmer (Mejdell, et al., 2016).
Even if a horse is not trained to communicate their blanketing preference, owners and managers can watch for these signs to keep their horses comfortable.
Horses that are too cold may:
- Be tense or jumpy
- Be stiff, especially if arthritic
- Have ears that feel cool to the touch
- Have hairs that will stand on end to increase insulation by trapping air. This is called a “staring” coat.
Horses that are too warm may:
- Show signs of general discomfort
- Lack energy
- Sweat, especially along the ribs under a blanket
- Try to itch or rub off the blanket
Some horses do habitually destroy blankets, including those on pasture mates, which can be costly for owners to replace.
Considerations for deciding when to blanket
The decision of whether to blanket should be based on the horse’s current hair coat length and thickness, and the temperature and wind chill outside (Bass, 2016). Show horses are often blanketed and/or clipped to keep their coats short (Figure 1). This helps them stay at a normal temperature when exercising and dry off more quickly when sweaty (Bass, 2016). Therefore, they may need to be blanketed sooner than horses that have not had their hair clipped. Blankets are also helpful for horses being transported from a warmer to a cooler climate without time to acclimate (Bass, 2016).
Blankets will compress a horse’s hair coat, reducing its natural insulating qualities (Bass, 2016). Therefore, a horse that is used to being blanketed should continue to be blanketed all winter, since their hair coat’s insulating qualities have been compromised. A horse that is not used to being blanketed should be fine in normal winter conditions, because they have grown an adequate hair coat to insulate themselves without the help of a blanket. It is important to evaluate each horse before deciding whether to blanket or not. Horses that are older, very young, nutritionally compromised, used to wearing a blanket, or used to a warm environment probably need a blanket in colder weather. If a horse is supplied with adequate nutrition according to their condition and age, and given adequate shelter, they will normally do well through the winter when given time to acclimate to the falling temperatures (Figure 2).
Fig. 1. Show horses are often blanketed in order to keep their coats short. Photos courtesy of Morgan Hall.
Fig. 2. Horses who are healthy and acclimated to cold weather are normally comfortable without a blanket.
General temperature guidelines for blanketed horses
There are many different recommendations for what blanket to put on your horse at different temperatures. Wind chill and precipitation vary greatly depending on the horse’s condition, age, activity, hair coat, and preferences.
General guidelines for a horse with an unclipped coat (Wenholz, 2005):
- Below 50° F use a light sheet (Figure 3).
- Below 45° F use a mid-weight blanket.
- Below 20° F use a heavy blanket.
- Below 0° F use a heavy blanket with a liner.
The exact temperature that certain blankets are applied does not matter as much as applying them consistently at the individual chosen temperature. Horses need to be able to adjust their hair length to the environmental conditions, including wearing blankets. Inconsistent blanketing directly influences the risk of illness because the animal must adapt their ability to thermoregulate.
Figure 3. Sheets are appropriate for mild weather in the spring and fall. Photo courtesy of Morgan Hall.
Avoiding blanketing pitfalls
If you have chosen to blanket your horse, here are a few items to consider. First, only blanket a horse that is dry and free of mud (Bass, 2016). A wet or sweaty horse will get the blanket wet as the blanket and horse dry, thus causing the horse to get cold. Additionally, a wet blanket can freeze, trapping moisture on the horse. An alternative to blanketing a sweaty or wet horse is applying a fleece or wool cooler for a period of time. Coolers work by wicking away moisture (sweat and steam) generated by the horse’s body heat, drying the horse off (Figure 4). After the horse is completely dry, the blanket can be put on.
Second, use a waterproof blanket as rain and snow can saturate a blanket, causing your horse to become chilled (Bass, 2016). It is also important to use an appropriate blanket weight, or thickness (Bass, 2016). A heavy blanket is appropriate in cold winter conditions, but a waterproof sheet would be more fitting for a rainy day with little wind, or a brisk fall or spring evening. Third, do not allow your horse to get too hot and sweat under the blanket, or they could catch a chill as they dry (Bass, 2016). Lastly, be sure to check the blanket straps for appropriate length and take off the blanket regularly to groom and check for possible rubbing (Bass, 2016). Rubbing can result in hair loss (Figure 5), open sores, and muscle soreness. Check manufacturer instructions for sizing to help reduce the chances of creating a blanket rub.
Fig. 4. Coolers wick away sweat and steam from a horse's body to help dry them off. Photo courtesy of Morgan Hall.
Fig. 5. Example of blanket rub on the shoulder. Photo courtesy of Sara Mastellar.
Take home messages
- Some horses prefer to wear blankets under certain weather conditions.
- Horses should be monitored for their comfort and if blankets are used, they should be used consistently.
- A horse’s needs should be assessed individually, considering age, nutrition, body condition, and hair coat. These factors combined with weather patterns will help owners determine whether to blanket or not.
More information on cold weather horse care can be found in the following articles:
- Winter Water Needs for Horses
- Feeding Horses in the Winter
- Windbreak Considerations for Horses
- Winter Horse Care
- Bass, L. (2016). To Blanket or not to Blanket? That's a Good Cold-Weather Question. Retrieved October 12, 2016, from Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
- Mejdell, C., Buvik, T., Jorgensen, G., & Boe, K. (2016). Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
- Wenholz, S. (2005, October 1). Blanketing Q&A. Retrieved October 12, 2016, from The Horse.