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When and even whether to blanket your horse can be confusing, particularly when confronted with as many opinions among horse owners as there are blanket types. Base your decision on your horse’s overall age and health, his living conditions, your climate, whether you clip his hair and his exercise routine.
Take comfort in knowing that your horse prepares himself naturally for colder weather. His coat growth and shedding respond to daylight, so as the length of daylight shifts, his body responds accordingly. By late summer, around the middle of August, your horse loses his short-haired summer coat in favor of the longer-haired winter growth. These longer hairs trap your horse's body heat, giving him a good blanket that generally is suitable for most cold winter conditions -- so even in winter, you typically will not need to add a blanket to this natural one.
If your horse is old or in poor health, his natural defenses may not work as effectively; talk to your vet about whether to blanket your older or ill horse when the temperature drops.
Some weather conditions are hard on your horse to combat without protection, even with a good coat of hair. Extremely cold winds are harsh, particularly if accompanied by cold rain. A good rule of thumb is that a horse can combat two out of three cold conditions on his own, cold, wind, and moisture, but not all three combined. If he has a run-in shelter and a full coat, these typically will provide him with enough protection. If he doesn’t, add a waterproof blanket so the moisture doesn’t penetrate the blanket; a wet blanket in cold weather is worse than no blanket.
Similarly, if your horse has just moved from a warm to a cold climate, his body may not have had time to adjust, so blanket him for at least the first winter and see how his hair growth is the following fall. Other temperature extremes, such as going from 75 degrees Fahrenheit one day to 30 degrees the next, also may warrant a blanket.
Horse owners who ride and compete year-round often clip their horses' coats, either a partial clip in areas that sweat that most, or a full body clip for showing. In these instances, you definitely need to blanket your horse when the temperature begins to drop in the fall. Use 50 degrees as your benchmark to begin blanketing. You can start with a lightweight blanket with less “fill” and then increase the weight as the temperatures continue to drop below 35 degrees. At 10 degrees and below, he may need two heavy layers.
Other Blanketing Scenarios
There are blankets and sheets designed for uses other than winter warmth. If you exercise your horse in cold weather and he gets extremely sweaty, a cooler absorbs the sweat so that he doesn’t get a chill. Coolers typically are made of wool or fleece, and are good for clipped and non-clipped horses. They are not made for turn-out, so keep him tied or in a stall until his hair is dry. You also can lay one across his back while you warm him up in cold weather.
In hot summers, consider using an anti-sweat sheet on your horse to absorb sweat before you turn him back out. These knit sheets keep your horse cleaner by drying him so he's less likely to roll in dirt to dry off. Lightweight sheets are also helpful on show days when you want to keep your horse and tack clean.
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