If you choose to blanket, invest in a fully waterproof blanket for horses living outdoors in very cold weather. Cold moisture trapped on the horse’s hair under a blanket can lower body temperature and potentially cause illness. Photo by Bonnie Wheatley

Dr. Kathryn Slaughter-Mehfoud, DVM, offers blanketing tips to ensure your horse keeps a comfortable body temperature throughout varying weather conditions.

Blanketing requires consistency, thoughtful planning and a little extra work on a horse owner’s part, but it can benefit the working horse throughout the winter months. Knowing how to blanket correctly is essential for the blanket to function as intended and keep your horse comfortable. 

What Horses Need Blankets?

Not every horse should be blanketed, and it’s important to evaluate your horse’s weight, work level and living conditions. Equine veterinarian Dr. Kathryn Slaughter-Mehfoud, DVM, says most horses do not need to be blanketed, even in very cold weather, because of their thick, multi-layer winter coat.

“Horses healthfully live in cold weather. In very cold weather, the hair on the horse puffs out, and this helps the horse in insulating the rest of its body. A blanket can actually prevent this natural insulation because it forces the hair to lie flat on the horse,” Slaughter-Mehfoud said. “Normal, healthy horses that have access to free-choice forage and a run-in shed do not typically need blanketing at all in the winter, unless the weather is extreme (single digits with wind, rain or snow).”

horses standing in a field
Normal, healthy horses with access to shelter don’t need blankets in the winter, however many horse owners choose to blanket athletic horses to limit hair growth and allow sweat to dry faster in cold temperatures. Photo by Kailey Sullins

Slaughter-Mehfoud recommends blankets for skinny horses, old or handicapped horses such as those with severe osteoarthritis, horses moving from a hotter climate to a colder climate, newborn foals, body-clipped horses and performance horses that are worked heavily throughout the winter.

“Blanketing helps keep that short, show-worthy hair coat that everyone wants. Athletic horses that are commonly worked may need to be blanketed because it will decrease excess hair growth in the winter,” Slaughter-Mehfoud said. “Blanketing allows the sweat on an athletic horse to dry quicker, because they don’t get as hairy. Blanketing also keeps horses dry so it allows owners to ride their horses in cold, wet weather whenever they want to.”

Selecting a Blanket

It’s important to keep several different weights of blankets on hand so you can adjust with temperature ranges. Horses kept in a barn won’t need to be blanketed as heavily as horses living outdoors that are fully exposed to the elements. Slaughter-Mehfoud advises using a light blanket for temperatures above freezing, and a medium- to heavy-weight blanket for sub-freezing temperatures, depending on other factors such as wind, rain or snow. She cautions against blanketing too heavily, as it can cause sweating which actually makes your horse colder.

“Check regularly for any sweat or moisture accumulation under the blanket,” Slaughter-Mehfoud said. “If you feel any sweat whatsoever, take the blanket off because the horse is too hot. The cold moisture trapped on the horse’s hair in cold climates can lower body temperature and potentially cause illness. If the temperature increases during the day, it’s very important that the horse not be too hot under the blanket.”

horse with blanket on
A properly fitted and adjusted blanket will lie smoothly against the horse’s neck and shoulders, cover the entire chest and abdomen, and fall below elbows and stifles. Straps should be adjusted to allow the horse full range of motion, yet not so loose that they dangle and pose a danger. Photo by Kailey Sullins

A properly fitted blanket is just as crucial. Because a horse’s weight can fluctuate throughout the winter, Slaughter-Mehfoud suggests continually checking blanket fit every few weeks and removing the blanket daily to examine your horse’s body for signs that the blanket is rubbing, such as hair loss, sores, and any other lacerations or skin conditions.

person putting hand under horse blanket
You should be able to easily place your hand under the blanket onto the horse’s withers. Photo by Kailey Sullins

“Examine the horse’s shoulders—the top buckle on the front of the blanket should align with the shoulders, and the neckline of the blanket should smoothly lie flat on the horse without bunching,” Slaughter-Mehfoud said. “Once the blanket is secure to the horse, place one hand under the blanket on the withers—that hand should fit easily under the blanket. If you can’t fit your hand under the blanket, it is too tight. If there’s excessive space between the withers and the blanket, the blanket is too loose. The entire chest and abdomen of the horse should be covered. A blanket that hits below the elbow and stifle is adequate in length.”

Blanketing for Outdoor Weather and Hauling

Slaughter-Mehfoud highly recommends owners pay extra for fully waterproof blankets and that you only blanket clean, dry horses.

“Owners should also continually examine blankets to make sure they are continuing to be waterproof. If your horse is wet under the blanket following rain or snow, the blanket may have lost its waterproof capabilities. It should look wet on the outside but the horse’s hair is still dry underneath,” Slaughter-Mehfoud said. “If a blanket is applied to a wet or sweaty horse, it can lower the horse’s body temperature. If dirt is left on the horse, the blanket’s friction can cause sores.”

The pasture is also not the place for slinkies or hoods, because they do not repel water.

“If the horse is clipped and you don’t want that hair to grow out on the neck, I’m OK with a blanket that goes up over the neck, I just recommend that it be waterproof,” Slaughter-Mehfoud said. “Slinkies are a great tool for the show horse that’s inside a barn and will not be exposed to the outdoor climate, because the material won’t be outside getting wet.”

horse in winter with blanket removed
Remove your horse’s blanket frequently to check for sweat, which is a sign the blanket is too heavy, rubbing or sores which indicate the blanket does not fit, and any other injuries or lacerations. You should only blanket clean, dry horses. Photo by Bonnie Wheatley

Blanketing in the trailer involves diligence and planning for extra time on the owner’s part to make sure the horse is comfortable for the duration of the trip. In an enclosed trailer, Slaughter-Mehfoud recommends blanketing lightly, if at all.

“I don’t think they need a heavy blanket,” Slaughter-Mehfoud said. “I would recommend driving for 30 minutes, stopping, and putting your hand under the blanket and checking to see if the horse is sweaty. If they’re sweaty, take the light blanket off and they’ll be fine. If you are traveling through severe weather—single digits in a more open, stock-type of trailer—a heavy blanket may be warranted. I still recommend the owner check within the first 30 minutes and continually check the horse every hour and a half to two hours after that, and even more frequently if the weather is changing and the temperature is increasing.”

Meet Dr. Kat

Girl with curly hair in a cowboy hat
Dr. Kathryn Slaughter-Mehfoud

Dr. Kathryn Slaughter-Mehfoud is a native of North Carolina. She earned her undergraduate degree at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and graduated from Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine in 2017, while also achieving her master’s degree in public health from the University of Minnesota. After graduating veterinary school, she completed her internship at Chino Valley Equine Hospital. Dr. Mehfoud is currently an equine surgery resident at the University of Illinois. She is passionate about arthroscopy, upper airway surgery and emergency medicine as well as encouraging open communication through positive client-vet relationships. Readers can follow her on Instagram
@dr.kat_thecowgirlvet.

This article was originally published in the December 2019 issue of Barrel Horse NewsSubscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

Author

Blanche Schaefer is an avid barrel racer and managing editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments or questions to [email protected]

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