Blanketing or “au Naturel”

My first horse Blue had a very extensive wardrobe. She had her show sheet, show blanket, her heavy-, mid- and light-weight blankets, and her waterproof outdoor blanket.

At the first hint of cold weather we would begin the daily ritual of removing the blanket for grooming and riding and then putting the blanket back on once Blue was cool and dry. Well into her retirement, my mom would religiously blanket Blue. Mind you, we lived in Fulshear, TX, just a hop, skip and jump from Houston–not considered the winter capital of the free world. Now that I live in Michigan, I have to chuckle at what we considered “cold weather” and wonder what Blue thought of all the fuss.

When my folks shipped my gelding and mare to Michigan, the hauler brought out six blankets that my mom had packed. Being a good kid, I blanketed both horses before leaving for work. By the time I got home, I was minus the gelding’s blanket and discovered the mare’s blanket hanging around her neck.

Even without Sherlock Holmes, I figured out that the gelding was performing some sort of Houdini act to get rid of his blanket and then trying to do the same for the mare. That horse just wouldn’t tolerate blankets on anyone!

After that, my husband and I made a deal to store away the blankets and not breathe a word of the travesty to my mom. In fact, we recently sold the blankets that had become a haven for squirrels to store their walnuts.

My horses do just fine in the cold as long as I follow some simple rules:

1) We provide our horses with protection from the wind and moisture. We converted two stalls of our old barn into a run-in shed, so our horses have a dry place to go. (Well at least the mare does–the gelding’s access depends on the mare’s mood.)

2) We let our horses grow a winter coat. That means that we don’t extend the daylight with our barn lights and we don’t body clip. The horses get pretty rough looking, especially the gelding. But that long shaggy coat provides great insulation when their hair follicles fluff up.

3) We make sure to provide plenty of hay for the horses to chomp on. Horses may need up to 25% more energy to regulate their body temperature in extreme cold weather. Since horses produce more body heat digesting forage as compared to grain, it makes sense to feed them more hay in the winter.

4) We make sure that they maintain a moderate body condition score. That means we feel their ribs underneath their shaggy hair coat. If we can easily feel their ribs, then they are getting too thin and need more energy feeds. If we can’t find a rib, then the horse needs to go on a weight watchers plan ASAP.

LEARN MORE from How to Body Condition Score Horses

Some of you may be prepping horses this winter for early shows or sales, or like my mom, just want to blanket your horse for your own peace of mind. Below are rules you need to follow to keep your blanketed horse healthy and happy:

1)Make sure the blanket fits your horse and has adequate straps to keep it in place. An ill fitted blanket causes all sorts of rubs on the horse. In addition, a blanket that is half on and half off can be dangerous, especially if the horse is turned-out.

2) Don’t over blanket a horse. Be sure to monitor the outdoor temperature or your horse’s activity level when blanketed. Sweat that is trapped between the blanket and your horse’s body can cause a loss in body heat loss as well as providing a safe haven for fungus.

3) Remove the blanket daily to groom and stimulate your horse’s coat. This is a good time to check for rubs, sweat marks and monitor your horse’s body condition score.

4) Use a waterproof blanket for outdoor turnout. Anyone who has had their winter jacket soaked can empathize!

5) Make sure the horse is completely cool and dry, and the hair coat has been groomed flat before blanketing. The cool down period after exercise is very important during the winter. If moisture gets trapped between the hair coat and blanket, then the horse will spend a lot of energy trying to warm-up. Ensuring that the horse’s coat is brushed smooth and free from sweat marks and dirt will help prevent rub marks.

LEARN MORE by reading Horse Blankets 101Horses that may benefit from a blanket in the winter are:

  • Horses that are under lights for breeding or showing or have been body clipped and need extra help staying warm in the winter.
  • Horses that shiver often. While shivering is a natural way for animals to increase their body temperature, most behaviorists consider it uncomfortable for the horse. In addition, horses will spend a lot of energy reserves when shivering.
  • Thin horses (below a moderate body condition score) will need extra help staying warm until they are at a healthy body condition score.
  • Senior horses may also need more help staying warm.
  • Horses that have recently been relocated from a warm to cold climate may benefit from a blanket while they adjust to their new location.

Some people just feel more comfortable knowing their horse is standing warm and cozy in their insulated blanket during the cold winter months. Just remember, once you blanket a horse, their natural blanket (hair coat) can’t help them stay warm. It’s up to you to keep up with a daily blanketing routine to ensure your horse stays healthy and comfortable.

As for me, I say au naturel for my equine pals!


Dr. Christine Skelly is an extension specialist at Michigan State University where she founded and directs My Horse University, an online horse management education program. Dr. Skelly developed the free online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101, in partnership with Discover Horses.Follow My Horse University on Facebook,Twitter and YouTube and take the FREE online course Purchasing and Owning a Horse 101.

What did you think of this article?

Thank you for your feedback!