I've had some questions about blanketing from several readers and my blogging friend over at Mulewings also asked me to weigh in on this debate. She had a very interesting post on the subject a couple of days ago that raised some interesting points, I may share some thoughts on that later as well. So, for Janet, Cynthia, Val and others who have asked about blanketing, here are my thoughts on the subject.
First and foremost, blankets are a risk to a horse or donkey's safety. Anything that can constrain, restrict or entangle is a danger. No matter how well made, well designed or well fitted, blankets are a risk. With that in mind, always think hard about your reasons for blanketing before doing so. All the shiny catalogs and slick advertisements would have you believe that any responsible, caring owner would blanket every horse. NOT TRUE. A healthy, well-fed horse who is well acclimated to it's environment will be better off without blanketing.
That said, there are times when blankets are necessary. Older horses, horses in poor health, thin horses or horses that have been relocated to a colder climate form a warmer one may all need blankets. Donkeys pose a separate issue depending on the environment they are living in. They can handle cold temperatures, but from what I have observed, it takes them much longer to grow enough coat to deal with exteme cold. They are very adaptable, but seem to take much longer than horses to do so, which leaves them vulnerable. Baby donkeys are especially susceptible to cold. Do not be fooled by the the fluff they have, especially if you live in an area like this one where it can be 60 degrees one day and 10 the next.
Last year, Emma and Ramsey finally got their full winter coats in February or March, just about the time the horses started shedding theirs. This year they seem to be doing the same. Winter came early and hard this year as well and they were both cold, which is why they are both wearing clothes. Also, donkeys are not equipped to deal with wet weather. While they have thick coats, they lack the water shedding ability of horses and become saturated easily, they need protection from wet. Their longer, coarser coats do not protect from wind as well as a horse's short, dense coat either.
The decision to blanket should be based on the individual animal's needs, not a blanket generality (no pun intended:). If your critters can do without a blanket they will be better off. They will be safe, have healthier skin and be more comfortable.
The decision to blanket should never be made lightly. It is a significant commitment in time, energy and money. You will likely need more than one (of varying weights) for each animal. Blankets have to fit properly, be kept clean and checked daily. Good grooming and hygiene are imperative to prevent skin irritation.
The question I get most often is, "how do I know if I need to blanket?". My answer, "ask your horse or donkey". I know this may seem flippant, but it is not. Think about why you want to blanket and take a close look at your horse. What does his coat look like? Do you know what a healthy winter coat really looks like? Does he shiver? Does he have adequate shelter and food? Is he maintaining weight? Is it hard for him to maintain weight? Is the horse body clipped? Is your goal just to keep him clean for riding or does the critter need heavy, warm blankets?
A healthy winter coat is short, sleek and shiny and can poof up or slick down quickly and easily, which is how equines regulate their temperature. A lot of very long scruffy hair is often mistaken as a good thing, but it is actually a sign that the horse has been unable to grow a good coat and is compensating by growing extra guard hair. All that long scruff hides the fact that they lack the dense undercoat which provides true warmth. In horses, this is usually a nutrtional problem, but can also be a sign of an underlying health problem. Donkeys naturally have longer, coarser coats.
The other question I get most is, "how do I know when to blanket?" This is the one that is really hard to answer because there are so many variables. You really have to know your animals and pay close attention to the weather. The main thing to keep in mind is that if you have chosen to blanket, you have to keep up with it, it is an all or nothing proposition. If you have made it this far without blankets and your animal is doing well, then leave well enough alone. If you have an older horse who starts losing condition, a donkey who is struggling to keep warm or has to deal with a lot of wet weather, a highly stressed animal or one who is being ridden a lot, then a blanket may help. Be very careful about it though, especially this late in the season because you absolutely do NOT want a horse to be sweating under a blanket. That is a very dangerous and unhealthy situation.
Your horse or donkey should feel toasty warm under a blanket, not hot and not cold. It is up to you to check frequently and adjust accordingly. Blankets take away the animal's innate ability to regulate their own temperature and put the responsibility for that on your shoulders. Be obsessive about weather watching. Take them off at every opportunity. Keep them and the animal clean. Check them often.
And if you also happen to have an aging Border Collie who can't stand to be left out of anything, but who also becomes very lame if he gets cold, suck it up and make sure he stays warm as well.