It's that time of year again. We've already had one cold snap that resulted in several days of freezing temperatures and even snow in some areas of our state. No doubt the blanketing issue has been on your mind. Or maybe you've heard your barn buddies discussing it. Regardless of where you stand on this question, I have two words for you:
Yep. That's the first thing that every equestrian should consider when making the decision whether to blanket their horse or not. Are you willing to take FULL responsibility for the choice you make?
Here's the thing. I have sale horses, competition horses, lesson horses, and retired horses. If the horse is in a program that requires regular riding and exercise during the cold months, I blanket. If the horse is retired, they're better off with their own hair. I blanket my working horses because I clip them. Not a full clip, but a trace clip of some variety. I do this because I don't have time to clean them off, nor do I have time to wait for them to dry after I exercise them. But I realize that blanketing my horses means that I am taking responsibility for having a full set of blanket options for every weather possibility for each horse. Not only that, but I recognize that there will be mornings or evenings when I have to spend an extra twenty to thirty minutes swapping out blankets because they are soaking wet or filthy. I know that this can be a total pain in the backside. But I choose to take responsibility for my blanketed horses.
So, here's my suggestion to you as an equestrian:
As yourself some really important questions and be honest with your answers. Evaluate your stabling conditions. What kind of shelter do you have available? How nutritionally fit are your horses? Are your horses clipped? How often do you ride? How LONG do you ride? (How sweaty does your horse get?) Is your horse older or in his/her prime? Has your horse just moved to your home from somewhere warmer? Is this your horse's first winter at your barn?
Now. When you have some honest data, think about whether or not you really want the responsibility of blanketing. Truth is, we live in an area that doesn't see long term sustained temperatures below about 10 F. Not unless you're way up in the mountains and even then it's pretty rare. Just because a human is wearing twenty layers and shivering doesn't mean your horse needs a few extra layers too. For the most part, horses are just fine in the cold weather gear Mother Nature gave them. Humans are just really hard to convince of that fact.
If you blanket:
*You WILL need to religiously check the temperature each day multiple times per day and be ready to unblanket, reblanket, change blankets, etc. accordingly.
*You WILL need to pay attention to the temperature when you ride and use a cooler or a quarter sheet to make sure your horse doesn't freeze and cramp up while you're trying to warm up or cool down before/after exercise.
*You WILL need to have multiple options ready and keep an eye on the cleanliness factor of your horse's blanket. A dirty blanket over time equals a horse with fungus and other skin conditions.
*You WILL need to have a full and comprehensive understanding of what every weight of blanket you own requires in the way of maintenance. Please don't assume waterproof turnout sheets can be washed and still be waterproof unless the manufacturer swears they can. Get ready with your needle and thread and regularly inspect your blankets for buckles and straps that need repair or frayed trim that might get tangled in a fence or other seemingly nonthreatening item. Understand what size blanket your horse needs and what happens when you have one that is either too big or too small.
If you DO NOT blanket:
*You WILL need to be careful with how sweaty your horse gets when you ride him/her and be prepared to spend the extra time necessary to hand walk/groom your horse dry after each ride.
*You WILL need to make sure your horse's coat isn't unable to do its job because its completely caked over with mud/muck.
*You WILL probably need to spend a few extra minutes getting your horse's coat clean enough to tack up.
*You WILL need to resist the urge to throw on an extra layer because your horse is wet or you think he might get cold overnight. Blankets do NOT go over wet horses and tossing a light sheet over a horse to "add a layer" is basically inhibiting his natural coat's ability to fluff up enough to do its job.
And for all of you-
Whether you blanket or not, don't be tempted to start throwing on extra random layers because the temp overnight is dropping. FEED MORE. That's right. A horse's digestive process is what keeps it warm. When in doubt of whether or not your horse is going to be okay when the winter temps take a nosedive for a few days, feed lots of hay and make piles that require moving around. Eating and moving around are the best preventative measures against cold weather issues.
Have more questions? This article from Colorado State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital is a great resource for those niggling questions about blanketing.