Monday, November 3, 2008

To Blanket or Not to Blanket - That is the Question

Horses naturally grow more fur in colder temperatures that acts as insulation -- nature's jacket so-to-speak. However, some people choose to cover their horse's body with a blanket for insulation, protection, and cleanliness. In making a decision on whether or not to blanket your horse, consider the following:

1. The climate where your horse is boarded. Is there wind? Rain? Snow? What is the temperature range in the winter months? One rule of thumb is that if it is cold enough that you need to wear a jacket, then you need to make sure your horse is wearing a jacket, whether it be extra fur or a man-made blanket.

2. Whether or not your horse has a shelter. Blankets are especially helpful in protecting your horse from high winds. Waterproof turnouts will keep your horse's body dry in rain and snow.

3. Whether or not you show your horse. People who show their horses often clip the hair to keep the horse clean and with a show quality appearance. In this case, they are removing the natural hair growth that the horse's body has decided it needs, and a blanket is necessary to make up for the lost hair.

4. Whether or not you ride your horse in the winter. If you ride your horse to a point where it sweats, all the extra fur it grows in the winter months may cause it to overheat during excessive exercise. A blanket can help prevent so much fur from growing so that the horse can exercise without overheating once the blanket is removed.

5. Whether or not you have the time to keep up the routine of putting on the blanket at night and removing it on warmer mornings. Once you start blanketing a horse during the winter, you need to continue to do it until temperatures rise in the spring. The reason for this is because the blanket will prevent the natural fur growth, and taking the blanket away suddenly would be like throwing a naked person into a freezer. There might be periods when it remains below freezing during the day also, and you can leave the blanket on for days or weeks at a time. You do have to monitor the weather forecasts and make sure that you remove the blanket in the morning on warm days. Too many horse owners leave for work when it is cold outside, and they leave the blanket on the horse, only to return at the end of the day to an overheated horse that has been suffering in the sun all day while buried under a blanket.

If you decide that you do want to start blanketing your horse, you need to consider the type of blanket that is most appropriate for you and your horse.
  • Indoor blanket vs. outdoor blanket: Stable blankets are usually lightweight and specifically for horses who are only blanketed inside a stall or perhaps outside, but only on dry days. Turnouts usually have waterproofing or weatherproofing materials applied to them, and can be worn in any weather condition.

  • Blanket weight: Most blankets come with a recommended range of temperatures. Sheets are the lightest weight, but can also be worn over heavier blankets. Mid-weight blankets are my favorite, because they keep my horses warm in the snow, but are not so heavy that I struggle to lift them. Heavyweight blankets can be difficult to lift and store due to their bulk, and should only be used in the most extreme freezing temperatures. Some websites, such as Schneider Saddlery, include charts to help you choose the correct blanket weight depending on whether you want to maintain or improve on your horse's current coat condition, and what the temperature range would be.

  • Open or closed front: Closed front blankets have to be lifted over the horse's head and threaded down its neck. It requires a little more training to get a horse to accept a giant mass of material around its face. Open front blankets usually have Velcro and/or buckles on the front, so you can train the horse to accept the blanket from the side, like a saddle, and then close up the front by hand. If you choose an open front, always make sure that you attach the front first before the belly and leg straps for safety reasons. If your horse bolts, you don't want the blanket to slide off and be dragged behind him by the leg straps. When you remove the blanket, always unbuckle the front last for the same reason.

  • Belly band or belly straps: A belly band is an extra wide band of material that covers the horse's belly to keep it warm. Belly bands are more often found on stable blankets. Belly straps or surcingles help keep the blanket in place, but not necessarily warm. The lengths of the band or straps should be adjusted so that they aren't so short that they dig into the horse's belly, and aren't so long that the horse could get a hoof stuck in them.

  • Leg straps: Most leg straps are optional to use. They can be attached like an X or around the inside of each hing leg like this:
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    Leg straps are usually the first thing to need to be replaced on a blanket. They often lose their elasticity, and the clips rust shut. I usually have to spray mine with WD-40 and pry them open and shut with needle-nose pliers after a few winters.

  • Rip-stop nylon lining: Horses are always getting themselves into trouble, and anything that you put on their backs is fair game when it comes to their destructive tendencies. You may as well look for a blanket with at least 1200D polyester or rip-stop nylon to save yourself a lot of sewing. If you expect the worst, invest in 1680D ballistic nylon or 1800D polyester.

  • Gussets: Gussets are like pleats that allow for more freedom of movement. Blankets are notorious for rubbing the fur right off a horse's withers. Consider your horse's conformation and the design of the blanket.

  • Length of drop: Some blankets only come down as far as the belly while others have a longer drop to keep the top of the legs warm and allow a little wrap under the belly when you attach the belly straps.

  • Neckline: Some blankets ride up a ways on the neck, some have V-necklines, some have round necklines. Consider your horse's conformation when choosing a neckline.

  • Tail Cover: Some blankets come with tail covers, and some tail covers are permanently attached while others are detachable, usually by Velcro. This is just for a little more warmth around the rear.

  • Neck Cover: Some blankets come with matching neck covers, and some neck covers only cover the neck while others also cover the head. Show horses that receive full body clippings often wear neck covers. If you do not use a neck cover, you will find that your horse's fur will grow out thick on the neck and stay thinner and shorter on the body when blanketed.
To measure for the proper blanket size, stand the horse square on flat ground. Using a cloth measuring tape, measure from the center of the chest along the horse's side to the edge of the tail. Position the tape so that it is at the widest part of the shoulder and hindquarters. The number of inches will equal the size of the blanket. If you do not have a cloth measuring tape, use string and then measure the string against a yardstick or metal measuring tape.

When introducing a blanket to a horse for the first time, you will probably have to run through some desensitization exercises. You can hang the blanket on a fence and give the horse time to approach and sniff it. Just make sure you supervise, so that the horse doesn't go nuts on the blanket and shred it before you even get to use it. Once the horse shows an interest, roll the blanket up into a ball in your arms and approach the horse while it is tied with a halter and lead rope. If the horse shies away, stay with it. When it relaxes, you can step back.

Once the horse is comfortable with that, touch the rolled up blanket to the horse's chest and sides. You can then shake out the blanket near the horse, so that it can get used to the sound and movement of the blanket. Once the horse accepts that, throw the blanket over its back. If the horse panics, try to keep that blanket on. Only remove it when the horse relaxes. You don't want to train your horse that it can find relief from its fear by dumping the blanket.

Always be aware of the location of your fingers and toes when helping your horse accept a blanket. I once was blanketing my young filly for the third or fourth time in her life, and she was still quite tense about it. I had just placed the blanket on her back and reached out to adjust it when my neighbor came out of his house and slammed his door. My filly jumped into me and broke my ring finger. I had to go to the doctor to have my ring cut off.

You can attach clips, like what mountain climbers use, to your stall wall and hang the blanket there so that you don't have to carry it all the way back to the tack room. I have also seen some stables drape blankets over a bar that is attached to the outside of the stall door. It is always safest to attach and remove blankets when the horse is haltered. Take the time to bend down and look underneath the horse to make sure that you have attached or detached all of the straps. When putting a blanket on, a dangling strap could startle a young or inexperienced horse and cause it to buck or bolt. When removing a blanket, if a strap is still attached, you could startle the horse by yanking the strap up into its belly or crotch.

When shopping for a blanket, don't confuse blankets with liners, fly sheets, slickers and coolers. Each of these items serves a different purpose. Blankets are specifically to keep your horse warm during the winter months and control the amount of hair growth. When you do remove the blanket, don't be surprised if your horse shakes and then hits the ground rolling. If your horse does spend a lot of time rolling in the sand (or mud), take the time to brush him before putting the blanket back on. That will keep the inside of the blanket cleaner and avoid discomfort for the horse.

Laundering should be done at least once between seasons. You don't want to let bacteria build up and make itself at home in or on the blanket. You can remove the detachable straps, attach the Velcro, and launder the blanket in your washing machine with a mild detergent and dry it on low, then hang it out to dry the rest of the way, or you can hose it down and hang it to dry on a fence in the sun, or you can hire someone to clean the blanket for you. Be aware that if you wash it too much, the stuffing may shift unevenly and result in the blanket pulling to one side when the horse wears it.

If you find that the blankets keep getting ripped, chances are that it is another horse that is ripping the blanket with its teeth or there is something with sharp points such as a fence that the horse is rubbing up against. Protect your investment in the blanket by separating horses from each other and removing sharp points in the horse's immediate environment. Horse blankets should last for several years if you take these precautions. Happy blanketing!

14 comments:

Jenn said...

Thank you for the blanketing post!

Two of my horses only get blankets if we get freezing rain or the temp drops to 20 or below with high wind. They are pretty fuzzy and have good insulation all on their own. I don't blanket them for warmth, I blanket to keep them dry and to cut the wind.

My TB hasn't grown much of a winter coat AT ALL so he will be blanketed for warmth and to keep him dry this winter. I'm all about the layers. Once it starts staying below freezing, he'll get a light blanket under a medium weight blanket at night. When it gets really, really cold he'll get a wool "sheet" (I call it long underwear for horses) under the light (almost no fill) blanket under the medium weight blanket at night . The medium weight comes off in the morning, depending on temps.
If it's supposed to get warm during the day, the medium weight comes off in the morning. It sure makes the morning chores easier if I'm pulling one off instead of having to pull one off to put another one on!

Every blanket gets a good going over and washing in the spring, and needed repairs made. In the fall, they all get re-waterproofed. I end up washing all my blankets at least four times (or more, depending on mud!) during the winter, and each washing means the blanket has to be waterproofed again.

Andrea said...

We never blanket our horses. I will blanket one if I am showing, to keep the hair less thick, but other than that, in the winter it doens't get much below 40 here. It does make for some serious grooming come spring time!! LOL

Jackie said...

Ahh, this is just what I needed! This is my first winter as a horse owner and I've been debating about whether or not to get a blanket for Ace. The other four horses at his barn aren't blanketed, but they are all heavier breeds with thick coats, and don't get worked hard. For several years, Ace was pastured year-round with shelter, but I don't think he had a blanket. However, your point about blanketing to keep hair growth down so that they cool out faster in winter is a good one ... as I do plan on continuing our training throughout the winter months.

Looks like I'm going shopping!

Thanks for this very informative post. Any specific brands you or anyone else would recommend?

Stephanie said...

Nice blanketing post...

The second to last sentence is key though - "should" last a couple of years... I wish mine would - I seem to have to replace mine at least once a year.

But after some observation I figured out how they are getting ripped...my horses live in a stall, they lay down alot, sometimes wiggle around, sometimes they roll, when they are ready to get up the blanket is all screwed up on them - it gets almost kind of "bound up" they when they try to stand the blanket is all tight and it certainly isn't as strong as my horse so it rips as the horse stands up. grrrr.....makes me mad when I am buy good quality blankets.

I have found that belly bands prevent this but my trainer hate them because they are high maintenance and time consuming to take off and put back on - so my horses don't wear them... :( and I continue fitting the blankets with the straps as best as I can and replacing the onces that rip.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

I hesitate to recommend a blanket, because everyone has different needs, but I've been using ones like the Stormshield® Classic Euro 1200D Midweight Turnout at www.sstack.com. They usually last between 2 and 5 years with normal wear, but only come with a 1 year warranty.

The amount of laundering I do depends on how dirty the blankets get and how often I get enough sun where I can remove them and hang them out to dry. I'd estimate that ends up being 2 to 4 times a season.

Jenn said...

I've been using Rider's International or Weatherbeeta blankets for years. Dover makes them, and I've been really, really pleased with their durability.

I tried a too-pricey Rambo a few years ago and it didn't hold up worth a crap, not for the bucks ($300!!!) I paid for it.

dp said...

I second the Stormshield Euro 1200D recommendation. We only use the shells around here (it rarely goes below freezing, but we get a lot of rain). My gelding is super hard on his sheets but he's been wearing the Stormshield for over a month and no damage so far. Not even a pulled thread. I'll never buy anything else!

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Very timely post on blanketing, NM. I learned a great deal reading this.

Thank you :)
~Lisa

Callie said...

Great post! Like I said before, I usually wait 'til it gets a bit colder and use it for wind and sleet protection! Awesome informative post!

Saddle Mountain Rider said...

We dont usually blanket here. The horses have shelter and a place to lie down. We will blanket, though, if there is freezing rain. I dont like for my horses to be wet and be without a blanket in freezing temps.

Victoria Cummings said...

I wait to blanket my horses until after they've grown their winter coats. Since we've had a few nights down in the 20's already, I was tempted to cover them. I'm glad I didn't because they are very furry now, especially Silk. It makes me wonder if that's a sign that we're going to have an especially cold winter. Horses are most optimally comfortable at an outdoor temperature of 50 degrees. I think a lot of people don't realize that and think that if we hairless folks are cold, our horses must be too.

Abraham Lincoln said...

So many things have changed in my 74 years on Earth. I never saw much more than fly netting on horses when I was growing up. The coldest nights and days found them coping with their fur in or out of stalls in or out of barns. It was like dog food. No stores sold dog food or kitty litter. People would have thought you were looney to ask for something like that as it was not invented. Horses were worth more than cats and dogs so what was available was usually used. Times really are different now.

cdncowgirl said...

Great post!
My mare gets a blanket because she is old (27) and a hard keeper. She doesn't need to waste any extra calories staying warm.
Our gelding gets blanketed because he is used all winter. In addition to the points you made in your post it is also easier to cool out a sweaty horse if the hair isn't so long and thick.
We are down to 2 horses right now.
They both have mid-weight and heavy weight blankets which I change according to the weather. If it is a REALLY nice day and I don't have to work they get the blankets off to enjoy some sunshine.

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