Blanketing for Winter: Who, What, Where, When and Why

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There’s no silver bullet when it comes to winter blanketing; it pretty much comes down to common sense. Here are some tips from an experienced owner/trainer to help you better understand blanketing basics.

“If a horse is visibly uncomfortable or shivering, a blanket will most likely come to the rescue,” said Denny Emerson, USEA Hall of Famer and owner/trainer of Tamarack Hill Farm in Strafford, Vermont, and Southern Pines, North Carolina.

Even though many horses will become acclimated to the cold, in a climate where wind, rain or snow is prevalent, they may welcome the added protection, oftentimes starting with that first chilly, fall night. Plus, the extra protection not only acts as a buffer against inclement weather, it enables the energy derived from feed and forage to be utilized for packing on necessary body fat, the ultimate padding.

Emerson noted that once you decide to blanket, it’s a commitment you’ll need to keep for the season, “because the coat’s insulating under-hairs, when tamped down, no longer will provide adequate protection.”

Who needs blankets?

  • When ears are cool to the touch, the coat stands up on end, the tail is clamped, when the horse is obviously tense or shaking;
  • A must for clipped horses regardless of the type of clip or their turn-out schedules;
  • Horses that are turned out to a wintry paddock from a warm stall--they can feel the cold more intensely than if they were outside 24/7;
  • Horses that live in a drafty barn--it can have the same effect as a biting wind on bare skin;
  • A long, shaggy-looking coat--it can be deceiving, masking “thin skin,” so watch carefully for signs of discomfort or weight loss;
  • Even a dense winter coat may not be enough to ward off the elements in a paddock or pasture without shelter;
  • Very young horses, as well as the seniors.

What type of blanket is best?

With the variety of stable and turn-out blankets available--from lightweight cotton liners to water-resistant, insulated turn-outs, choosing the right one(s) depends on the horse’s needs and your budget. For the hearty, an all-weather top sheet may suffice, while the “hot house flower” may need multiple blankets. Whatever the prescription, the layer closest to the skin should be breathable.

Blanket Management

“Even the best-fitting blankets need to be managed,” said Emerson. “They should be removed and re-applied at least once every day; even more if they become twisted or uneven. It not only gives you the opportunity to check for chafing or sores, you’ll have the chance to remove trapped dirt or shavings at the same time.”

As temperatures and conditions fluctuate throughout the day, he said to look for signs of overheating--sweating behind the ears, along the neck or heavy breathing.

“You also should unbuckle the straps and reach beneath the blanket(s), feeling for warm, sticky or wet skin at the chest, shoulder and along the rib cage,” he concluded.