There is a nip in the air and the tack shops are displaying winter horse blankets. So, does my horse need a winter blanket at all, and if so, how do I decide which features are important?
Most horses are protected from cold weather by their own coat; the one nature gave them. If the horse is in good health and is carrying its natural winter coat, has a good body weight, and has shelter from the wind and elements it is probably fine without a blanket in winter. Do they really need to be blanketed in winter? Most of the time, no.
On the other hand, a very young horse, or old horse has less resistance to the cold and can benefit from a blanket, as well as a horse that is underweight or in poor health. Obviously, if a horse is shivering a blanket is in order, or when the temperatures drop below what is normal for the region. Horses that are pastured year around and have minimal shelter will also benefit from having a turnout blanket.
It is when we humans interfere with Mother Nature that blankets are most necessary. Show horses that are kept under lights and/or clipped to preserve a fine coat and broodmares under lights to control their heat cycles, will certainly need to be blanketed when the temperatures drop.
Horse owners who are concerned that their horses will be cold in the winter sometimes forget that a horse can become over heated if the blanket is to heavy, or if there is a warm break in the weather. Check under the blanket and if the horse is sweating, then obviously it is too warm. On warm and sunny days take the blanket off, or replace with a lighter weight blanket. Most new blankets are lined with a smooth, breathable fabric to minimize sweating.
Once you've made the decision to blanket your horse there are several more decisions to make while shopping. There are two types of winter blanket: stable and turnout. These come in three weights: light, medium and heavy. If the weather in your region is variable a light or medium blanket combined with a blanket liner is a good choice. The liner, usually made of flannel or fleece, can be used with the blanket in the coldest weather, and then removed when the temps are more moderate.
A stable blanket is just what the name implies, a blanket designed to be used on a horse while it is indoors. If you only need to blanket at night while the temps are lower, or if your show horse stays indoors most of the time the less expensive stable blanket, which is usually not waterproof, is adequate.
If the horse is turned outdoors a turnout blanket is needed. The turnout is waterproof, and made to withstand more abuse. Leg straps help keep the blanket from twisting when the horse rolls.
Horses that stay outdoors in all weather may need a blanket that covers the neck or the addition of a hood. The high cut blanket gives extra protection from the elements. Horses that have been body clipped will need a hood to cover the head and neck. Another feature to look for is elasticized neck openings to give a snugger fit, thus keeping rain from running under the blanket.
Horses are hard on their clothes, so durability is am important feature of a good winter blanket. A high denier fabric, rib stop weaves and reinforced stress points will lengthen the life of the blanket. A good fit will make the horse more comfortable and its blanket will last longer. Blankets that feature a gusset at the shoulder will allow full movement of the front legs without stressing the blanket.