The temperature is dipping, and you're wondering if you should put a warm winter blanket or "turn-out rug" on your horse. You certainly feel like you need to wear a sweater or jacket, but does your horse need an extra layer? Chances are if the weather is "wintery" but not windy nor wet, your horse probably doesn't need a blanket. As long as your horse has access to good quality hay and fresh water, the heat generated by its digestive system, and the natural protection of its thick winter hair coat will probably keep it comfortable in weather that would send you running for a warm jacket.
Several studies seem to show that horses do fine without a blanket. If they have to choose between being outdoors, in a heated shelter, or an unheated shelter, they most often choose to be outdoors. So it looks like horses aren't as bothered by the cold as we are.
When Blanketing Might Be Wise
Although some maintain that you should never blanket a horse, there are some situations where it may be a good idea. Older horses or horses that may have trouble keeping weight on in good weather will burn a lot of calories to keep warm. These horses will benefit from extra feed and the extra protection of a wind and waterproof horse blanket. All horses will benefit if there is some sort of windbreak or run-in shelter available to escape the direct brunt of the wind, rain or snow.
If the weather is very wet, the natural loft of your horse's hair coat will be lost, and just like a wet goose down jacket, will not keep the cold out. If it is very windy, body heat is blown away. Horses can be left un-blanketed in very still, cold weather down to -4F (-20C), and they may be fine. However, add wind-chill or rain into the mix, and you can quickly have a shivering horse.
There are hazards to blanketing that horse owners need to be wary of.
Within a group of horses, one often makes a game of "destroy the blanket." That's frustrating for you, especially if you've just saved up to buy that extra-special blanket for your horse and after the first day, it has big teeth marks in it. It's also a hazard because a ripped blanket is easier for a horse to be tangled in.
Horses can be caught in hanging belly or leg straps too. Coolers, sheets, and stable blankets aren't suitable for outdoor turn-out. They often lack the straps and fasteners that prevent outdoor blankets from shifting. So straps have to be in good repair and adjusted properly.
Some Fabrics Cause Chafing and Poor Breathability
Poorly fitting winter blankets can severely chafe or cut a horse's skin. If winter blankets aren't made of breathable fabrics, the horse can sweat underneath and become uncomfortably wet. Likewise, horses left blanketed when the weather turns mild will be uncomfortable. Some blankets are made with layers that can be used separately. These are convenient but could be a problem if the layers shift.
Keep Horse Blankets Dry at All Times
If you often deal with wet weather, it might be handy to have two blankets. If one blanket becomes saturated, you'll have an extra for your horse while the other dries out. Wearing a wet blanket is as bad, or worse than wearing no blanket at all.
Use your best judgment when deciding whether or not to put a winter blanket on your horse. If your horse seems cold, it probably is. Not all horses will react to the cold weather the same way. Young horses, senior horses, or thin-coated horses will probably feel the cold more than thickly coated horses, ponies, and mature healthy horses. Watch your horses. If they are shivering, or standing hunched and uncomfortable looking it may be time for a blanket. If they are hard to keep in good condition during cold weather, a blanket in addition to extra food might help.