Nature provides the horse with protection from the cold with an insulating hair coat that usually does a fine job. Many horses thrive and do well through cold winters without being closed up in a barn, but they must have shelter, a windbreak, good nutrition and a thick coat.
For some horses, however, blanketing is an essential part of winter care. Horses in heavy training or competition are commonly blanketed so they don't grow a winter coat, which can slow the cooling process. Blanketing can be helpful if a horse has to travel to a cold climate from a warm one during the dead of winter. When a horse is purchased during the winter and was body clipped or blanketed previously to maintain a sleek coat, blanketing may be needed for the transition period. In this case, the horse can't be expected to fend for himself, and continued blanketing is necessary until the horse grows enough of a hair coat or warmer weather arrives.
Some horses just need the extra protection of a blanket at certain times. "If it's just cold, usually horses are okay, especially if they have shelter. It's when it's wet, windy and cold that you need to think about blanketing," notes Katherine S. Garrett, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. "It depends on the part of the country you live in, and a lot also depends on the individual horse. Foals born in January are probably going to need blankets, but they also tend to have more hair than those born in May."
Sick, young and old horses are all candidates for blanketing, as are average horses in extreme weather conditions. Newborn foals often need a blanket when turned out in harsh winter weather. Keep an eye on young foals inside, too. On very cold days, a foal may even need to be blanketed in the barn. If a foal — or any horse — is shivering, he's cold.
Most of the time, owners tend to over-blanket their horses, rather than under-blanket them. If you put your hand under the blanket on your horse and it feels moist, you know you have too much protection on him.
When blanketing horses that will be outside, you'll want a turnout blanket. When buying a waterproof or weather-resistant blanket, be sure it's made of breathable material. Otherwise, it's like putting a plastic raincoat on the horse and he can get too hot, which may lead to health concerns.
If you need to blanket a horse that's never been blanketed before, take a step-by-step approach. It's a good idea to start in the stall and let the horse wear the blanket for an hour or so at first with someone around to keep an eye on him. This is especially important with foals as they aren't accustomed to anything on their bodies. Let the foal stand with the blanket on and then walk him around the stall quietly.
Make sure your horse is accustomed to wearing a blanket before turning him outside. Don't turn a blanketed horse outside for the first time at night. Get him accustomed to wearing a blanket during the day when someone will be around. The first few times you blanket any horse, check on him more often to be sure he's adjusting to it and not destroying it. Most horses tolerate blankets pretty well, but some tend to chew on them, especially those with front buckles.
If your horse chews on buckles or the blanket itself, you can buy spray-on products designed to discourage biting and chewing. Some of these will stain blankets, however, so read the label or ask for recommendations at your local tack and supply shop.
Make Sure it Fits
Any time you are blanketing a horse, safety precautions should be taken. Start with a well-fitted blanket so there is less chance of the blanket coming loose or twisting, which can frighten the horse. The blanket shouldn't be tight against the body, but it should be snug. Make sure the straps are in good condition and attached properly.
Fit is important. A too snug blanket can rub off the hair on parts of the chest and shoulders, while a too loose blanket can slip around on the horse and actually pose a stumbling danger. You know the blanket fits well if there are only a couple inches of space at the chest and it doesn't pull tight. The blanket should reach all the way back and cover the entire rump.
The easiest way to properly measure your horse for a blanket is to have a friend help. Make sure your horse is standing square and on a level surface. Have your friend hold the end of a flexible fabric measuring tape at the middle of your horse's chest (where the neck meets the center of the chest). While your friend holds the end of the tape in place, take the tape and run it along your horse's side, parallel to the ground, measuring over the widest part of the shoulder and down his side all the way back to where you want the blanket to end. If you want the entire rump and tail covered, measure to the center of the tail. The total measurement in inches is his blanket size.
Blankets typically come in 2" increments (American sizing) or 3" increments (European sizing). If your horse falls in the middle of two sizes, round up to the next size. For example, if your horse measures 71", you should buy a 72" blanket, not a 70".
Leg straps are important when it comes to keeping a blanket in place. Just be sure to adjust them so they aren't snug as you don't want them chafing the horse. Blankets with nylon lining inside the shoulder area will help keep the hair from rubbing. You can also purchase a separate blanket liner to help prevent rubbing.
When you start shopping for blankets, you're bound to run into the term "denier." Denier is a unit of measure for the size or coarseness of fiber or yarn. The lower the denier, the finer the fiber.
Just as a high thread count signifies quality when buying sheets for your bed, a high denier number means a horse blanket that has a greater resistance to snags, abrasion and tearing. If you want a blanket that will hold up to the tough wear and tear horses can dish out, look for one with a high denier number. Generally speaking, the higher the denier, the more durable the blanket.
Basic Blanket Care
Although some horses are hard on blankets and try to chew them, urine and manure can also end up causing significant damage because the acids eat away at the material. You can buy a blanket-waterproofing product, which will help repel stains.
When a blanket gets dirty, let it dry and then brush it off with a stiff brush. Follow label directions and wash periodically in an industrial washing machine, preferably with cold water. Waterproof blankets are generally better off being professionally cleaned.
Dryers tend to beat up blankets, so it's better to use them minimally and hang blankets to finish drying completely.
Once winter is over, make sure blankets are thoroughly cleaned before storing them away. Have any necessary repairs done at this time as well. If you have multiple horses and blankets, it's helpful to write the horse's name and blanket size on a piece of masking tape and put that on the blanket or storage bag before putting them away for the season. Some horse owners like to tuck a dryer sheet in with the clean, folded blanket, as they think this deters bugs. Just be sure to store blankets in a rodent-proof area. You don't want to pull them out next season to discover they've been turned into mouse bedding.