Blanketing horses in cold weather is a topic that causes much scratching of heads in the horse world. Let’s take a look at how to determine which blankets will best suit your horse’s needs this winter.
To Blanket or Not to Blanket: That is the Question
For the most part, horses do not necessarily need to wear blankets. By their very nature, horses are outdoor animals. They are designed to be able to keep themselves warm in cold weather. Having said that, there are still many circumstances under which a horse might need to wear a blanket:
- A stable-kept, clipped horse
- A horse who has a hard time growing a coat
- An old, sick or underweight horse, or a horse that is very young
- A horse who has recently moved from a warmer to a colder climate
- A horse that gets turned out without free-choice access to shelter
Before you decide to blanket your horse, keep in mind that once you start, you must maintain your blanketing routine until the warm weather returns, since the act of blanketing will interfere with your horse’s natural ability to grow a suitable winter coat.
Worried your horse might get chilly, but not ready to commit to a full season of constant blanket changes? Keep in mind that the best way for a horse to stay warm is just to eat more (good quality) hay. Horses are referred to as “hay burners” for a reason – digestion is a fermentation process and its by-product is heat. Sometimes adding a few extra flakes of hay is more effective than adding an extra blanket.
If, however, your horse does require a blanket, then your first step is to determine the type of blanket that will work best for your particular situation.
Types of Blankets
There are generally two types of blankets:
- Turnout Blankets (waterproof and rugged and designed for lots of movement)
- Stable Blankets (not waterproof; more fitted and less rugged, designed to be worn indoors)
Types of Turnout Blankets:
- Sheet (think “windbreaker”) – designed to keep the horse dry in rainy or muddy conditions. Sheets, or shells, do not provide any warmth and in fact can keep a horse from being able to naturally stay warm if used in cold temperatures.
- Blanket (think “winter jacket” or “parka”) – blankets come in three different categories, determined generally by the amount of polyfill between the inner and outer layers:
- light-weight – 100 grams of fill, great for spring or fall
- mid-weight – 180 to 200 grams of fill, perfect for chilly (but not freezing) winter temps
- heavy-weight – 300 to 440 grams of fill, for days when it feels like the earth might just freeze over
Types of Stable Blankets:
- Sheet – fitted, normally cotton, fleece or wool, meant to keep a horse clean (or as an added layer of warmth under a blanket).
- Blanket – normally quilted, again with varying degrees of fill from 100 to 400 grams between the layers. Stable blankets normally have a more “fitted” cut than turnout blankets and don’t always have added “stay put” features like leg straps. They are not meant to be worn outdoors, except as an added layer of warmth under an actual turnout blanket.
Which Blanket When?
When blanketing horses in cold weather, it’s imperative that they are dressed for the temperatures. Bear in mind that it is much better for a horse to be a little chilly than a little too warm. As a general rule of thumb, for a clipped horse being kept indoors at night with some turnout during the day, start blanketing when the temperatures dip below 10 degrees Celsius (that’s about 50 degrees Fahrenheit), and add an extra layer or swap out for a heavier blanket every 5 or 6 degrees.
So, for example, at 6 to 10 degrees C (40 to 50 F) many clipped horses are already in a sheet, to protect them from any chilly winds or drafts. You can add a fleece liner under that sheet once the temps are getting down to between 0 and 6 C (30 to 40 F). Move to a mid-weight blanket when it dips down below 0 (so, about 30 on the Fahrenheit scale).
Then, for every 6 or so degrees celsius, graduate from a mid-weight to a heavy-weight, to a fleece liner under the heavy-weight. On those really cold days, especially if there’s a wind chill, reach for your horse’s heaviest blanket (one with about 440 grams of fill), or add a mid-weight under a regular heavy-weight.
Clear as mud? See the end of this post for a handy-dandy temperature chart!
Remember that for outdoor turnout, your horse should be changed from his stable-wear to sturdier, waterproof turnout garb. Turning horses out in stable blankets is asking for trouble, both for your horse (nothing is worse than standing out in a soaked blanket because you got an unexpected rainfall) and for your blanket (they’re just not designed to stand up to the rigours of horseplay).
For the unclipped horse who is spending the majority of its time outdoors, you can normally get away without blanketing at all. As long as he is in good health and weight, and has full access to a shelter any time he likes, you can let nature do its thing.
However, for older horses, or the ones who have a bit of a hard time keeping weight on, follow a similar routine to that of the clipped horses. Since they are not clipped and therefore likely have at least somewhat of a winter coat, they don’t need quite as much coddling, and will happily get by on a bit of a simpler blanketing plan.
Until the temperatures are consistently below 4 degrees Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit), the unclipped horse can stay naked. It’s best to give them as much time as possible to keep growing a coat. If it dips down below 4, but not too much below 0 (say, between 30 and 40 F), add a rain sheet on wet days (mainly because some older horses don’t always remember to go into the shelter, or they may be lower on the pecking order and end up spending more time outdoors than the others).
By the time the temperatures are down to minus 6 Celsius (twenty Fahrenheit), your unclipped horse should likely be sporting a mid-weight blanket. He can comfortably stay in that until you’re into pretty cold weather. Anything below minus 12 C or so (0 to 10 F) and it’s time to bump them up to a heavy-weight turnout (somewhere around 300 to 350 grams of fill. If there’s a real wind chill, you could even add a fleece liner under their heavy-weight turnout.
Then, for those absolute freeze-your-butt-off days when it’s below minus 17 C (or below 0 F), especially if there’s a wind chill, an “extra” heavy-weight (around 400 grams), or a mid-weight under their regular heavy-weight should keep them nice and cozy.
Want this all in a nicely organized chart you could hang on your tack room wall? You can find one at the end of this post!
Is Your Horse the Right Temperature?
Please remember – these are general guidelines only and may not work for your horse or your situation. The best way to know what blanket your horse should be wearing is to look at him and determine if he is too warm or too cold.
If Your Horse is Too Warm:
- He is restless
- He is sweating under his blanket
- He is sweating behind his ears or under his neck
- His breathing is heavy or even laboured
If Your Horse is Too Cold:
- His ears feel cold to the touch
- His body is tense
- His tail is clamped tightly to his body
- He is shivering
If the Blanket Fits…
Besides knowing if your horse is wearing the right type of blanket, it’s also important to ensure it fits properly. You can get a general idea of the size your horse wears by measuring from the centre of the chest around to the centre of the tail, then subtracting two inches.
Many blankets come with gusseted shoulders, higher necks and other options to allow you to achieve close to a custom fit. Keep in mind that a stable blanket will be a bit more “fitted” to your horse, whereas a turnout rug should give him a little more room for the natural farting-around that’s going to take place out in the paddock.
The only way to truly know if a blanket is the right fit for your horse, though, is to actually try it on him. Some tack shops are nice enough to let you try the blanket on, and return it if it doesn’t fit. Obviously in this case you should do your utmost to keep the blanket clean during the fitting process. Groom your horse thoroughly, and drape a thin bed sheet over him before trying on the blanket.
Do you blanket your horse? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!