Jan Whitlow’s equine family gather around her in a circle wearing their new waterproof blankets to help protect them from freezing cold, wind and rain that would flatten their otherwise thick and fluffy winter top-coat that serves as an insulator to keep their bodies warm. From left are Thunder, Mulla the mini-mule, Orion, Patch, Teddy and Shetland pony Belle. (Karen Griffiths/for Peninsula Daily News)

Jan Whitlow’s equine family gather around her in a circle wearing their new waterproof blankets to help protect them from freezing cold, wind and rain that would flatten their otherwise thick and fluffy winter top-coat that serves as an insulator to keep their bodies warm. From left are Thunder, Mulla the mini-mule, Orion, Patch, Teddy and Shetland pony Belle. (Karen Griffiths/for Peninsula Daily News)

HORSEPLAY: Advice for blanketing horses for winter

SNOW-CAPPED MOUNTAINS AND frost in the lowlands greeted us Tuesday morning, Dec. 21, Winter Solstice and the first day of winter. Which begs the question: When temperatures plummet, do we blanket our horses or not? If so, when and what kind can be a nerve-racking decision for us owners.

There are five types of horse blankets: turnout blankets, which come in a variety of weights and styles; stable blankets, which aren’t waterproof and are for horses living inside; summer sheets, made of lightweight cotton and shield the animals from UV rays; mesh sheets to help keep those pesky and irritating flies and bugs off during warm weather; and coolers, which are used after exercise when the horse has sweated and its body temperature has risen.

Today, I’m writing about waterproof turnout blankets used to shield horses from varying weather conditions and climates. The right blanket choice will help regulate your horse’s body temperature and maintain a healthy condition.

Put a blanket on too early in the fall, and their hair might not grow long enough to help them keep warm when the outside temperature falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Or the long hair could start shedding too early, leaving them vulnerable to cold weather. Too heavy a blanket can overheat them, leaving them sweaty and miserable during the day. Too much moisture under the blanket and against their skin — also caused by blanketing too soon after exercise — can cause friction irritation and lead to bacterial skin problems.

Many folks, especially those living in the rain-soaked and flooded areas on the West End, already have put lightweight waterproof raincoats on their horses. If they didn’t, and the horse’s hair stays matted and moist next to their skin, the horse can develop “rain rot,” also called rain scald or dermatophilosis. This bacterium can cause an inflammatory infection, resulting in lesions on your horse’s skin.

A few experienced horse owners offered their advice.

“If you are riding daily and your horses live outside, you are going to be riding a very wet horse. I do blanket once we are around freezing and change weights as needed. I can’t imagine having to groom a very wet horse,” said Nancy McCaleb, a horse trainer and instructor who resides just west of the Elwha River.

OPEN co-founder Valerie Jones Jackson, who lives in Sequim, said: “I do own blankets for each of my horses. My horses all have free access to pasture and shelter. I only put blankets on when the daily high temperature is going to remain below zero, and in our climate, that happens only once or twice each year.”

Jennifer Reandeau, who lives in Joyce, said she blankets her horses when it’s wet and freezing cold.

“Horses can handle a lot of rain, but if they get soaked to the skin and it turns really cold, they can get cold,” she said. “They can, and will, shiver just like anyone else.”

She suggests keeping in mind that, when you blanket a horse, you flatten the hair down next to the body. Horses keep warm by fluffing that hair up and making insulated pockets of warm air.

“When you remove the blanket, you need to brush them quite well and fluff that hair back up so they can keep their body warm,” Reandeau said. “Horses are great at regulating their own body heat as long as their skin is dry.”

Agnew’s Pam Crosby suggests blanketing older horses that have trouble keeping on weight and when shelter isn’t available.

“It’s very important for horses to go through seasons,” Crosby said. “Plus, they get such a healthier, shinier coat if they are able to shed it naturally in the spring.”

Sequim’s Glenda Cable used to keep her horses in box stalls and blanketed during the winter, “which I feel was for my benefit as well as theirs. Now, we are all old and either retired or only horse around in fair weather. They have shelters, and while I have blankets for everyone, they wear them only in extreme weather or if having a health crisis.”

“I don’t have a set policy but look at each equine as an individual,” said Jan Whitlow of Port Angeles. “The horses grow their own good heavy winter coats, but we’ve had so much rain this year, I figured they would benefit from rain sheets.”

She recently put new blankets on all six of her equines. Her mini-mule Mulla has a different hair coat from her horses, so she got her a lightweight rain sheet. For her older Paint horse, Patch, she got a medium-weight blanket, which has extra fill in the lining for warmth. He’s 28 and is losing muscle now, and he seems happier for it.

Shetland pony Bella, pinto Thunder and Tennessee walking horses Teddy and Orion are sporting lightweight waterproof raincoats.

Please note, over time, the waterproof coating does wear off, and you might have to spray another coat on. Check older blankets to see that they are still waterproof before you put them on. A blanket that’s not waterproof becomes damp and heavy on the skin and is worse than no blanket at all.

Some people wash the blankets first, allowing them to completely dry in the open air (a dryer breaks down the fabric). I use a little steamer to get mud and dirt off, and then I apply three thin coats of waterproofing agent after it’s dry. I’ve found it takes one spray can per coat.

Do your research before purchasing a blanket. Each manufacturer’s website provides a complete description of each type of blanket it sells, along with how to measure for correct sizing and how to clean the blanket. A poor blanket fit is one of the most common causes of rubs and sores on the shoulders, withers and hind legs. Reputable manufacturers allow for returns on unused and clean blankets, so put a regular bedsheet over the horse first and then the new blanket to check its fit.

I like the Euro-cut blanket because the front sits on the neck rather than the withers. I also like the shoulder area to have gussets for more freedom of movement. Turnout blankets should also have a tail flap.

Belly straps should be snug enough that you can just fit the width of one hand between the strap and belly of your horse. Leg straps should not hang as low as your horse’s hocks. After attaching the left strap to the left side of the blanket loop, put the right strap through the left strap before attaching it to the right side of the blanket. That helps keep the blanket in place.

While it may seem a good idea to protect the horses from rain with a blanket, you may actually be inhibiting their natural abilities to keep themselves warm and their skin dry. Even the finished rain sheets can weigh down a horse’s coat, interfering with this natural ability.

Keep monitoring each horse for chills or sweating, and remove the blankets regularly to check for sores and to brush their coats.

And, if your horse has recently moved here from a warmer climate, then put on a mid- to lightweight blanket for its first winter here. Unlike northern Idaho and Montana, we get relatively mild winters, so, unless a horse is sick, there’s no need for a heavyweight turnout blanket.

And remember, horses need to eat more good hay to fuel their bodies when it’s colder outside.

Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears the second and fourth Sunday of each month.

If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, please email Griffiths at kbg@olympus.net at least two weeks in advance. You can also call her at 360-460-6299.

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