It's strange how the everyday practice of blanketing horses causes so much uncertainty in conscientious owners. Stranger still is the degree of passion blanketing arouses among horse caretakers. Some people scoff at the idea of clothing any animal, much less a horse; others are equivocal, pulling out the sheets and rugs occasionally for special circumstances; and still others fastidiously bundle up their horses from late fall to midspring as they would dress their children headed out into a snowstorm. Is one faction right and the others wrong? Is blanketing a boon or a bane to the horses themselves? What are the facts and truths about this wintertime ritual?
To the question, "Must I blanket my horse?" the short answer is "no." The horse generates his own blanket--a haircoat that is long enough and thick enough to withstand the coldest days of winter. It's an adjustable covering that flattens against or elevates above the skin as the horse grows warmer or cooler.
"Hair is a great insulator, and it fluffs up to warm the horse," says Michael Foss, DVM. "Heat rising from the body warms the air, but that air doesn't go anywhere because it's trapped between the hairs."
As for the question, "Should I blanket my horse?" the answer could also be "no," but special circumstances make "maybe" or "definitely" the correct responses for certain classes of horses. Blanketing is necessary for competition horses and foxhunters who are routinely clipped during colder weather to maintain a sleek appearance, reduce sweating, shorten cooling-out time and speed drying after rigorous workouts. Aged horses whose appetites and digestion may not supply enough fuel to keep flesh on their bones and their internal "furnaces" stoked require shelter or blanketing during bad weather.
Relocated horses transported from a warm locale to a much colder climate often need additional covering for their first colder winter. Horses relocated before the autumn equinox have time to grow a woollier coat to match the colder weather, but even then they may not be sufficiently insulted for the new climate.
"I've seen horses come from California to Montana, and the first winter those poor guys just don't seem to have the coat," observes Duncan Peters, DVM. "There's probably a little temperature involvement and something to do with the horses' ability to recognize how much coat they need to grow."
Added to these "must haves" are all the horses who are blanketed mostly for the owners' peace of mind and/or convenience (it's a lot easier to lift off a layer of mud caked onto a blanket than to curry it out of a winter coat). There's no harm done in blanketing for reasons other than the horse's health, but in all cases, the addition of clothing increases your management responsibilities. If you choose to clothe your horse, the crucial decisions aren't the color and style of the "outfits" but your daily judgments about how much protection your horse needs and the best way to protect him from the irritations and hazards that accompany blanketing.
The Q&A's that follow address 10 common uncertainties facing horsekeepers about when, why and how to blanket.
Q: What weather conditions are hardest on horses? When is blanketing most beneficial?
A: Cold wind causes horses the greatest discomfort and more rapidly saps their energy because it whips away body heat faster than any other condition. Cold rain is a close second, chilling the skin through conduction and flattening of the hairs' insulating loft. "In Washington we get a lot of rain, and it can be below freezing for two to three months, though seldom below zero," says Foss. "But I think that 35 degrees and rain is much harder to deal with than lower temperatures."
Still air, frigid temperatures and snowfall are not particularly chilling to horses already adapted to colder regions. Snow accumulates atop their long winter coats without penetrating to the skin or drawing away body heat. In fact, that layer of snow serves as a sort of insulated blanket over the haircoat.
In extreme or severe weather conditions, shelter--stabling, sheds, windbreaks or other forms of natural cover--are better protection from the elements than a single garment. If you blanket your horse to protect him against wind and cold rain, use a waterproof garment to keep the rain from soaking the fabric and penetrating the haircoat.
Q: Do blankets really prevent the growth of the winter coat?