Blanket Rule for Blanketing Horses
Kayla in her new blanket at 35 years of age!

We just had our first taste of real cold weather this weekend, and I was reminded again about the "Blanket Rule" video I did last winter on Periscope, which was subsequently deleted within 24 hours! Many people tried to watch it later and couldn't, and so I decided to write the story into the blog so it's here for future reading.

The reason I decided to actually use video that day was because of the weather conditions. The sky was gray and dismal - with a very fine misty kind of rain that you only find when you walk beside the Niagara Falls! It wasn't quite rain - just a steady, consistent mist. It wasn't cold like it is now, and the ground was soft and muddy. But the mist did a great job to illustrate my reasoning behind my blanketing practices.

Like you, I'd seen the Facebook articles and comments about letting horses be horses, and sensitive "city" owners who cover their horses because they can't take the cold themselves. Those thoughts had made me second-guess myself but I still stuck to one rule that you can count on: listening to the horses themselves.

I used my two geriatric horses, Annahi and Kayla, to demonstrate for the video.

First off, we looked at Kayla. She is 34 years old and although her teeth are going and she is now a little rickety in the hind end, she's the picture of health. In her youth, she always grew wickedly wild mammoth fur in the winter. Kayla was tough and fast to ride, no-nonsense and safe.

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I never needed to blanket Kayla. I was THE anti-blanket girl (plus, let's face it - blankets were rare and fairly expensive at that time). Horses need to grow winter coat, I thought! It was the healthiest way for them to live, and I wasn't going to interfere with nature.

In fact, those were the "good ol' days" of riding outside in the chest deep (to her) snow, riding only as needed in the worst of the cold, and otherwise not doing much of anything during the winter. We'd ride a bit in the indoor just to keep them moving and some of the horses would come in at night as part of their regular routine.

She never seemed to care about living out in the elements. She ate constantly, rolled in the snow, napped when the sun came out. To this day, she has the kind of fur that stands on end in the cold, and because of its length and thickness, it can actually keep the falling snow off her skin. She is the poster girl for the image of a horse that is completely covered in snow, calmly blinking the ice out of her eyes.

The video showed what I meant because that misty rain literally sat on the ends of her fur. There were tiny little droplets forming but they did not get to her skin. Most of her fur was still dry (maybe also because of the oil that gives her coat the great shine it has).

But these days, she's wearing a light winter blanket. When she was 28, I noticed that she seemed to be a little more tense through the real winter cold. She had lost a bit of weight and condition the year before, so I decided to borrow one of my other horse's rain sheets and put that on her, just to help break the wind and keep her dry.

The following spring, during their annual shots and teeth check-up, the vet commented on how good she looked. She did! She was shiny, she was shedding out nicely and she had good weight on her. I hadn't noticed much though, and when he asked me what I had done differently this year, I told him I hadn't done anything! The feed was the same. The turnout was the same. The herds were the same. Nothing had changed!

Until I thought about it. "Uh -- I did put a blanket on her in the winter," I said.

"That's it!" he said. "She just needed that extra bit of warmth to keep her condition up. She looks better this year than she has the last three to four years." And so I learned that even the toughest, most natural horse might actually need human support under certain circumstances.

Then I bought Annahi.

Annahi is the exact opposite of Kayla. She is thin skinned and thin coated. She doesn't eat much at any time. She is a ballerina to ride and sensitive to the aids. She's also sensitive to bugs in the summer, and weather in the winter.

She introduced me to horse-style shivers. The kind that happen over the whole body. The knee-knocking, large-muscle shaking tremors that look alarming if you've never seen such a thing. Most amazingly, she would present her shivering frame in mild temperatures, just because of a wet, breezy weather change. As I was the "au naturel" girl, I waited through a few such episodes to give her opportunity to grow out her fur, and toughen up. Surely, all horses acclimatize to cold weather!

Well, Annahi was the one to teach me otherwise. She continued to shake in rain, in snow, in windy weather. Her coat never grew much - great for our indoor arena rides, but not so much for outside turnout. And so I familiarized myself with horse blankets. The instant I put one on her, her shivering stopped. Completely. And her coat gleamed. And she rode better - well, no wonder, as her muscles didn't have to be so tense during turnout.

She told me that some horses just weren't bred to live comfortably in our extreme weather changes - hot or cold. She taught me that some horses would actually lose condition based on the weather outside, that some horses need turn-in so that they can be their best when we ride. Well, I also became "blanket girl."

The video was the perfect vehicle for the illustration. Annahi's coat was opposite to Kayla's on that fine misty-rain kind of day. Even with that limited bit of moisture, her coat was soaked! The fur was flat. The skin was wet. There was absolutely no insulation quality on her neck area that was exposed to the rain.

In years since, I've learned that all horses have their own needs, and you simply can't decide what is best for them. They will tell you, if you listen carefully enough.  And they will thrive. It's all about management and understanding all the options out there.

So I chuckled when I saw those articles and comments - because, really, there is only one blanket rule for blanketing horses: it depends. 🙂

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  1. Totally agree. My two are both Welsh Cobs so you would expect them to be the same – not true. My mare has long hair that sheds the rain easily and she hates having any rug on at all. My gelding however, has fine hair and he shivers in the rain and cold so has a rug on all winter!

  2. Excellent article. One size doesn’t fit all, for blanketing, hoof care and quite a few other things. I own a furry little Morgan. I never blanketed him because he had a good coat and most of the time he only got out four hours a day (boarding – not my choice!) in a paddock without shelter and hay. When he was 16, one day he was soaking wet to the skin and shivering. I decided to put a rain sheet on him to protect him from rain snow and wind. I moved him to a much better barn where he’s out 8 hours a day and gets some hay outdoors but it’s a very windy area and still, no shelter. I put the rain sheet on him around the end of November and he comes across as much happier than the horses that aren’t blanketed at all. On windy afternoons, he’s not runing back and forth in front of the gate, waiting to come in. I have a black rainsheet that I save for the coldest days in Jan/Feb. (Sunshine +black gives a little extra warmth). Temperatures here in winter can be minus 20 during the day. He’s a working horse (2nd level dressage, 4 days a week)) and when I ride him in winter, he becomes supple fairly quickly.

  3. Thank you! So much depends on the horse… where I board, the standard is to put a rain sheet on at 50 degrees and below, but there is some flexibility. With everything from massively yak-like draft crosses to thin-skinned, thin-coated Morgans (that would be us) to a 33 year old mare who is not holding up to the weather like she used to, and half the horses in the barn being seniors, we need that.

  4. Another great article! I used to detest blanketing (actually, I still do….but I listen to my horses…). Last winter, when I owned 3 horses over 30 years old, it became very clear! 33-year-old Cricket detests the blanket, but puts up with it because it stops her shivering. The 31-year-old, Kally, would only wear it if I insisted because she hated going in the shed. 30-year-old Vanna just said “yes, please!” Unfortunately, I lost Kally this past summer (her legs just gave out)…….but I’ll cater to the needs of my horses again & deal with blankets.

  5. My experience with my big guy is the same as your Annahi…if it is anywhere around 60 and he gets wet (basically if there is a chill in the air, no matter the actual temperature), then you will be met with full body shivers! He never grows much of a winter coat, even when I tried the same “leave the blanket off of him and SURELY he’ll grow a real winter coat!” tactic that you tried! So, after I moved him to a new farm and the new barn owners experienced the shivering for themselves (to their credit, it was only 60 and misting a little, just windy), he is happily the only horse blanketed at the farm until the temperatures dip down below freezing! I agree, listen to your horse!

  6. Thank you for your timely and non-biased approach to a very controversial topic. I have always blanketed my horses, despite receiving some disapproving looks for doing so. I don’t believe that blanketing a horse is a bad thing, so long as you use the right weight blanket for the temperature and conditions. Some horses absolutely need to be blanketed, as you point out. Whether outside or in a stall, some horses just need that extra layer. The temperature here dropped 43 degrees in a span of 48 hours over the weekend. All of the horses in our barn are keeping warm under their blankets.

  7. Totally agree. Bought my brood mare Valentine from Idaho so figured she wouldn’t need a blanket in California. WRONG! She started losing weight as the winter progressed. I walked out to the field with a blanket for her and she ran straight at me and stuck her head our to find the neck hole. She was very happy to have her blankie. Needles to say, she wintered well after that.