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The Golden Rule of Blanketing Horses and Other Tips from a Real Expert

I dropped off a pile of horse blankets this week with a professional for cleaning, water proofing and repair, and I had the most insightful conversation with her about when to blanket, when not to blanket, her favorite brands, and some tips for good care! This article is a recap of our discussion. May it offer you some insight into your own blanketing decisions.

Have you ever counted how many horse blankets you own? I have not, and I never will. A precise blanket number is an admittance- a guilty sentence for horse craziness. If you're like me and have a horse blanketing problem rather than a shoe problem, blankets are not just ways to keep your horse(s) warm and clean, but it's an expression of our love. My husband realized this fact early on in our horse farming union and will frequently say "they will know that they are loved" as I bundle up to head out to the barn. What he is really saying is "they don't need those blankets, but go ahead and leave dinner to me while you spend yet another hour doing horse chores.”

My major horse chore last week was the seasonal blanket swap. I triaged which blankets went to the cleaner, which needed CampDry, and which needed a new home. I gathered the dirtiest of them, both summer and winter fashions, and carted them down to my local wash and repair business, MH SewNRepair, owned by Melissa (last name still unknown, but must start with an H). When I arrived, the chemistry of time and situation facilitated an onslaught of questions from me to her about blanket choices. Our conversation excited me and here’s what I realized….if anyone knows horse blankets, it’s Melissa. She’s been washing and caring for horse blankets for over 20 years between Arizona and Montana. I’ve been using her for three years! Why hadn’t I been curious about her knowledge before? From now on, she’s the only person from which I will take blanket advice!

Melissa and I see eye to eye on many aspects of horse blanketing. For instance, we agree that there are reasons to blanket and reasons not to blanket. “There are times when blanketing is necessary,” she says. “The old horse, the underweight, the performer, and the new horse from a different climate.” Blanketing is one of those management practices that lies tangent to nutrition, so it comes up during my consultations from time to time. Blanketing conserves calories during extreme weather conditions, so if your nutrition goal is weight gain or maintenance of a sensitive horse, blankets save on purchased calories. They can be a tool in your nutritional toolbox- like the opposite of a grazing muzzle. If you needed another excuse for blanketing, know that science can back you up. Horses will consume less forage per day when blanketed. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science reported a significant 0.2% dry matter intake difference between blanketed and non-blanketed horses. That’s 60 lbs per month per 1,000 lb horse or 360 lbs over 6 months of winter hay feeding. For my 4 horse situation, I interpret that as saving roughly a bale per month per horse or 24 bales per winter (just shy of a ton). At $300 per ton, I suppose that supports the purchase of a new blanket each year.


“Horses that are going to be in a training or riding program throughout the winter are easier to keep clean and dry off quicker after a workout if kept covered,” says Melissa. I completely agree and do this myself. Winter riding already takes twice the time that summer riding does. Not having to curry through 3 inches of mud and hair each time I tack up is worth the regular blanket on, blanket off, blanket on, blanket off, blanket on…off…on…off. Melissa suggests a mid-weight and a heavy-weight for northern climate horses. “The change of temperatures we experience here in Montana is not conducive for a one blanket system. A high fill blanket might be necessary for warmth in the morning, but then be too much by afternoon.” Personally, I get a lot more anxious about horses overheating rather than being too cold, so I find that the medium weights (200-250 g fill) work great for 99% of our weather. I end up using the heavyweights for only the most extreme days of the year.


Melissa says that even healthy horses need protection to be comfortable when wet snow comes with windy conditions! Her advice is suggestive of my golden rule of blanketing. When I’m gone, I tell my horse feeders = “Two of the three must exist: Very Cold, Very Wet, Very Windy”. The specific tipping points will obviously depend on your climate, but in Montana that might look like wind gusts of 30 mph with freezing temperatures or snow followed by zero degree temps. It does not include freezing temperatures with no wind or moisture nor does it include pouring rain with no wind and warm temperatures.


The Golden Rule of Blanketing: “Two of the three must exist; Very Cold, Very Wet, Very Windy”

There are reasons NOT to blanket. If you don’t have the time or money to commit to them, then don’t do it. The time commitment comes in the form of daily checks (running your hand under the blanket), regular body condition scoring, and keeping horses dry and clean under them. Melissa has witnessed some nightmarish blanketing situations; unnoticed allergic reactions, serious rubs, an entire season of hair shed under a blanket, and emaciated horses under blankets that haven’t been removed in 5-6 months. “Blanketing is an investment,” she warns. The money commitment looks like purchasing high quality fabrics and annual cleaning, repair and even waterproofing. You may not need to blanket at all if your horse has natural or fabricated shelters, you don’t ride throughout the winter, and/or your horse is obese and at risk for laminitis in the spring. “Blanketing a horse is not only a financial investment, it is also an investment of time and effort” Melissa repeats. It’s hard to blanket well, so be honest about your availability and budget and don’t cave to peer pressure if blanketing isn’t right for you.

According to Melissa, ultimately, fit is the most important factor to consider when blanketing. “An ill-fitted blanket can be worse than no blanket at all!.” A well-fitted blanket will prevent excessive sweating, rubs and sores. She has seen blankets too large cause just as many problems as blankets too small. Blankets that drape far over the tale collect urine and manure and add to the weight of a blanket. Recently, I’ve learned how different brands can be in size and shape. My mare fits an 81 in certain styles of Rambo, but is definitely a 78 in the Weatherbeeta. It’s frustrating, but know that it may take some time to find the right blanket for each horse. You can drape an old bed sheet over your horse and underneath a new blanket when checking fit. Then, you can return it if it’s not right.


The second most important blanket consideration that I learned from Melissa is quality. She says that it’s hard to define quality with so many types of fabrics, fills, weights and styles out there - “who knew that you could have a teflon coated horse blanket!” she exclaims - but quality can best be narrowed down to breathability. The more breathable a blanket, the more our mistakes will be forgiven. For example, breathability will forgive not getting home in time to remove blankets during a warm spell or blanketing a slightly warm horse after riding. “Quality blankets will allow the body temperature of the horse not to be contained under the blanket, but allowed to dissipate, keeping your horse from getting sweaty and retaining excess heat.” Testing for breathability can be as simple as running your hand over the outside and inside. The outside of the blanket will be damp, but the horse will be completely dry. Breathability is a reason to spend a little more on a high quality blanket.

Other quality factors include the denier rating of the outer fabric- the higher the denier rating, the more heavy duty the fabric, resisting tears and teeth marks. When blanket shopping, Melissa suggests “a 1,200 denier and higher, blankets that allow good shoulder movement (gussets), contour neck or neck adjustment options, and a tail flap.” She also suggested fewer seams. “The fewer the seams, the longer your blanket will last, because the heat tape required at those seams will get brittle and detach from the fabric over time.” As far as brands are concerned, Melissa has noticed common issues with each one, but would prefer not to name them, because it depends on so many other factors. Consult the fitting guides provided by each company. I also highly recommend reaching out to your local blanket wash and repair business for insight into each brand’s wear and fit tendencies.



Summary

To blanket or not to blanket may come down to simple time and money budgets, but may also be worth the investment for a horse that needs to conserve the calories. It may also be worth it if you continue to ride your grey horse through the winter like me [see photo above]. Fit and breathability are your number one and number two considerations when shopping for a new blanket. Some brands fit certain breeds and confirmation types better, so shop around and note the return policies of your distributor. “Blanketing is time consuming, yet when done right, your horse will be comfortable throughout the winter and when cared for properly, your blanket will last more than just a season” finished Melissa. Keep them clean, keep them waterproof, and make repairs quickly. That’s what I learned from a true blanket expert! If you have a local blanket repair business, I encourage you to reach out to them to learn more. Then share what you learned in the comments of this post. Winter is coming…are you ready? I am physically, but definitely not mentally.


Reasons to Blanket Your Horse

  1. Your horse needs to conserve calories for weight gain or to maintain a good body condition score.

  2. Two of the three exist: very windy, very cold, and very wet.

  3. To keep your active performance horse clean through the wet, cold season.

  4. Your horse is new to a cold climate.

Reasons to NOT Blanket Your Horse

  1. You don’t have the time to manage them

  2. Your horse has a stall or shelter

  3. You're not riding your horse

  4. Your horse is fat- BCS >7

Melissa's Tips for Good Blanketing

  1. Keep them out of the sun when being stored.

  2. Waterproof every year regardless of age, but especially the blankets that are discolored from the sun.

  3. Keep them clean (dependent on use and conditions). Urine and manure left on fabrics for long periods of time will break down the fibers.

  4. Have a spare incase of a tear or extreme weather.

  5. Stable blankets can not be made waterproof.

  6. Keep a roll of strong duck tape handy for quick repairs mid-winter.

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