Blanketing Your Horse
Ignorance or Cruelty, the Result is Often the Same. Don’t Sentence Your Horse to Suffer.
Blanket your cold horse!
Christine Barrett-Distefano is the founder of Amaryllis Farm Equine Rescue, Long Island’s largest horse rescue and oldest sanctuary. For four decades, she has cared for multiple hundreds of horses from every walk of life. Amaryllisfarm.com
Thermoregulation. The term used to deny a cold horse comfort these days. People thermoregulate, by the way. Drop a few degrees and you can suffer a heart attack. Fig leaves for cover? Certainly all that’s needed in some climates. Perhaps not Alaska. Then again, blood does thicken in the cold. Bottom line, all bodies will fight to survive. Of course, the weaker will be weeded out naturally. The aged and the sickly, they will be culled but the strongest will flourish. So ditch the clothes and live a natural life!
Most of what a human seeks for comfort is not a requirement for survival. Humans, like horses need air, water and food. The rest is a luxury, is it not?
Let’s talk about horses. The strongest survive in the wild and those genes are passed on through the generations. Their bodies are well adept to the challenges Mother Nature throws their way. Hair coats are grown and shed according to need. Hooves are self trimmed every day. (I will get into detail on this topic in a future article). The entire body of a Mustang works in communion with their natural surroundings. The domestic horse is most often removed from this environment. Most horses are farm bred, in fact. Being bred for speed or for looks but not inherent stoicism.
The innumerable factors needing to be considered for the horse’s welfare are absolute.
Climate. Are we talking South Texas or North Dakota? Surely one must not heed the advice of a self proclaimed professional in an unrelated environment when it comes to the care of their helpless equine charge.
Housing. Are we talking well built, draft free shelter with room to move about or a metal pre-fab that rattles in wind and is deafening during rain?
Age. Mid teens and beyond, the equine body is heading to the grave. The older it gets, the weaker it gets. Nature’s way. Keeping your horse with you longer than nature intends requires some strategic efforts. Do not be fooled by the horse who resembles a Yak at first glance!
Long hair waves in the wind but offers little insulation. Some horses have superior coats but they aren’t necessarily long haired, simply more hairs per square inch than other horses have. An Egyptian Arabian I had the pleasure of owning many years ago, Walter Farley had hair like that. His hair always remained short even into his senior years but you had to try hard to separate the hairs to find skin. He was always warm. A Paint gelding here, Promise has long hair and but no thickness and although at first glance, one would guess he would do fine without a blanket, he gets cold early on in the season. Remember too that random long hairs are a sign of worm infestation so make certain you are using brand name wormers properly and do not be confused!
Breed. Are we talking Shetland Pony or Thoroughbred from a low end breeding farm hoping for a quick payback? Perhaps ponies do better in the cold, wintery winds because they are simply closer to the ground? Common knowledge is to get low out the wind, so who knows. Some breeds will naturally grow more hair than others however, there remains each unique individual and your unique environment to consider. Yes a draft or a pony breed may well need a blanket to thrive, yet you may also have a Thoroughbred who does just fine naked. How do you know? Obviously shivering is a clear sign of a too cold individual but so is weight loss, depression, lowered immunity, decreased water consumption.
History. Did your 3 yr old mare ship to you in New York from Connecticut or did the 18 yr old gelding ship north from a lifetime in the deep south? Perhaps the 25yr old mare who worked 23 yrs as a race, then show, later lesson and camp horse and came to you after a life of living primarily in a stall and being blanketed every winter? Are you seriously considering returning her to nature? Strip the clothes, the shelter, the only comfort and security she has known and now in her vulnerable years is desperate for? I have witnessed self proclaimed rescues do this very thing. In Japan, they used to send their aged humans to the mountains.....back to nature! Are you unaware of your horse’s history, then err to side of caution and watch them like a hawk until you are certain you are doing the right thing for them. Keep rechecking your decisions as weather changes and age increases and especially as you move from barn to barn which is incredibly common in my area.
Health. Physical, mental, emotional. Stress in any of the aforementioned states requires antidotal action. The health and well being of your horse is exactly as important to him as your own is to you. This is not anthropomorphization. I will delve further into the health states in the next article but for now, know that unless you factor in all variables regarding your horse and the decision to blanket him or refrain from blanketing him, you may be unintentionally causing great suffering.
Blankets vary in design greatly. There are blankets that hug the front of the horse, some even extending forward to allow neck protection when grazing in the rain. There are those that sit above the wither area and those that are cut back more for very high headed horses. Some have hind leg strapping or tail straps. Blankets that have safety release belly surcingles or full belly bands. Blankets are specific to stabled or pastured horses. Stable blankets do not usually have hind leg or tail straps for added security as is required for turnout blankets. Stable blankets are also not waterproof.
Quality. This is not an area to look to save money! Especially on your pastured horse. His safety and well being should be of paramount concern to you. Good stitching and hardware that will not rust or break, a denier tough enough to resist tears, breathability and excellent waterproofing is a must. I have had Tough 1 and Smartpak blankets’ front snap closures break. The original Hug blankets all ended up breaking their elastic and plastic buckle closures. Many of my Schneiders blankets have hind leg straps that loosen on their own daily. I have also had Centaur blankets’ belly surcingles lengthen out on their own. Pretty scary. A blanketed horse must be watched. I have had Rhinos come up over the hindquarters even though the tail cords were tight. I have had Weatherbeetas twist dangerously. I will only use well fitted Rambos and the like along with Big D Espree rain turnouts. If you want to or have to blanket, choose wisely.
Blankets are available from those with no insulation to those with a varied layer of increasingly heavy insulation. When choosing to blanket, one does not simply throw any blanket on the horse and assume he’s been helped. In fact, if you put a low insulation blanket on a horse who has a bit of a winter coat, you will cause the loft to lie flat and make him even colder than if you had done nothing. Remember also that the more hair a horse has, the slower he will dry so it is important if he must be in the rain to be protected from it in the colder months. So, when you choose to blanket, be smart and use your own inherent survival instincts for him as well. Or perhaps just think of those habits as your sensationalist comfort seeking desires. If you go out with a raincoat, so should he. If you are wearing a three season jacket, put him in a medium or 200 gram blanket. If you are wearing an 850 goose down coat with an overcoat of a windbreaker, then get him in his Rambo Vari-Layer 450 gram Supreme with Hood attachment. When you down dress, so does he. Continually check him with your hand to be sure he is warm but not hot nor cold and that he is dry. Beware the unlined rain sheets that are truly waterproof but not breathable as they will cause your horse to sweat. I use the Big D Espree after decades of trial and error because they have a mesh, moisture wicking liner. It makes a big difference as compared, believe it or not to the Rambo turnout sheets.
How any blanket conforms to the shape of the horse will dictate it’s true effectiveness. A well fitting blanket will allow for comfort and body heat to remain within. A loose blanket will allow body heat to escape, especially if the horse lives in a windy area. A loose blanket can shift and entangle the horse as well. A tight or ill fitting blanket can cause rubs and irritation. Tail cords must be close enough so the blanket cannot ride up on the hindquarters. Belly straps should only have a few inches (perhaps your hand sideways) between them and the horse’s belly so a leg won’t get caught when the horse lies down. If your belly straps are too long, just twist them and they will shorten right up for you. The hind leg straps need to be long enough not to rub the insides of the upper legs but not so long as to get caught on a leg or become ineffective at keeping the blanket from shifting sideways. I connect one leg strap on one side of the blanket but then run the other strap through the connected one before securing it to it’s own side.
Horses existing in situations wherein they may walk in and out of their shelter at choice require a waterproof, breathable turnout blanket. Horses living in a stall and being allotted a few hours outside daily may simply have the stable blankets changed to the turnout blankets or have a turnout blanket put on over the top of the stable blankets. Factoring wind in your horse’s turnout area is essential. Wind can take a blanket and pull it over the horse’s head. So can a vivacious pasture mate! Cheap elastic leg straps used on even some of the most expensive blankets will not necessarily hold against wind stress. Two of my horses happen to have Baker Heavy Turnouts. I pulled in to witness one horse’s hindquarters to the wind and the blanket in the air like a hot air balloon in the last storm while the hind legs straps became a thong. Brand new, one day old blanket! Baling string to make a tail strap secured it down but if a leg strap gave, the blanket would have caused a catastrophe. In the same way, a blanket with only a tail strap, no matter how well designed must have the strap fairly taut so the wind will not be able to lift it from the rear, or again it can come up and over the horse’s head. I personally double knot all tail cords as I do not find them short enough for my mostly Thoroughbred hind ends!
Bottom line, individuality must be acknowledged. Each individual horse in every unique situation is going to require care for their specific needs. I have Thoroughbreds who do not require blankets and a Shetland pony and a Rocky Mountain Gelding who do. Take the brunt of your knowledge from your horse and not from the internet.
Excellent nutrition, pure water and fresh air along with good friends and as much freedom as possible are all requirements for your horse’s vitality.