Ask the Expert: When to Blanket a Horse

Question: I’m confused about blanketing my horse during the winter. I grew up with horses happily housed outside and un-blanketed during the winter months. The horses had access to shelter. I’m now boarding my horse and everyone at the barn blankets their horse and thinks I’m crazy not to! The horse does have access to shelter while outside. Can you please give me some advise on blanketing during the winter?

Answer: Most horses are blanketed for various reasons (i.e. show schedules) or due to personal preference of the owner. However, blanketing a horse is necessary to reduce the effects of cold or inclement weather when:

  • There is no shelter available during turnout periods and the temperatures drop below 5°F, or the wind chill is below 5°F
  • There is a chance the horse will become wet (not usually a problem with snow, but a problem with rain, ice, and/or freezing rain during cold weather)
  • The horse has had its winter coat clipped
  • The horse is very young or very old
  • The horse has not been acclimated to the cold (i.e. recently relocated from a southern climate)
  • The horse has a body condition score of 3 or less

A horse will continue to develop a natural winter coat until December 22 (Winter Solstice), as days are becoming shorter. Horses begin to lose their winter coat, and start forming their summer coat, as the days begin to get longer. Blanketing before December 22 will decrease a horse’s natural winter coat.

Author: Marcia Hathaway, PhD, University of Minnesota. This and other horse nutrition articles can be found at http://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/horse/nutrition/.

Around the Barn: Winter Preparations

Even though this is a horse nutrition blog, nutrition is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to keeping your horses happy and healthy.  As we head in to cold winter months, I thought I’d share some of my favorite tips for prepping your horse and some of the gear that goes with him!

  • Blanketing:  In general, horses adapt well to decreasing temperatures by growing an insulating hair coat.  As long as they have shelter to get out of wind and precipitation, and are able to meet their increased energy (calorie) requirement, they do quite well and can tolerate sub-zero temperatures. 
    • Keep in mind, the insulating value of the hair coat is compromised if it gets wet.  As temperatures drop below the critical temperature which is around 50°F on average, horses require more energy to stay warm, which is best provided by increasing the forage in their diet, not grain. 
    • Blanketing may be a good option if:
      • There is no shelter during turn out
      • The horse’s hair coat is clipped
      • You have a very young or very old horse that might not be efficient at maintaining body temperature
      • The horse is under-conditioned or under weight
    • Finding a blanket that fits well, is waterproof, breathable, and the proper weight (light, medium, heavy fill) based on the conditions are important considerations. 
    • If you already own blankets, dig them out before you need them and check to ensure they are clean, in good repair, and still fit your horse properly. 
    • Never blanket a wet horse, or put a wet or damp blanket on a horse.
  • Don’t forget to periodically remove the blanket and assess body condition, and check for any rub marks that the blanket may be causing.
  • Winterizing the barn and trailer: Fall is a good time to prepare your barn and trailer for colder weather.  Cleaning, installing or checking insulation, replacing screens with windows, ensuring ventilation is adequate, insulating water sources, cleaning and safety-checking heaters and electrical systems, are recommended.  
    • In the barn:
      • Check the roof for structural integrity and leaks
      • Clean gutters and install snow slides if needed
      • Plan for snow removal and de-icing walkways, if applicable.
    • In the trailer
      • Check the floor, lights, brakes, and tires and replace or provide maintenance as needed. 
      • Put together an emergency kit for you and your horse in the event of a break-down in winter weather. 
      • If you are on the road frequently, consider road-side-service for equestrians in the event of an emergency. 

Good luck, stay safe, and take a moment to enjoy the site of your horse playing in the snow if you are lucky enough to see some!