Why doesn’t my horse like his blanket?

A behavior expert tries to unravel why a gelding seems frightened of his own blanket.

A horse wearing a purple blanket
If the blanket fits and is adjusted well, but the horse is still spooky or uncomfortable, the material may be the problem.

Q: I purchased a new horse last fall and, for the most part, he’s been wonderful. When the cold weather set in, though, I discovered he has a strange quirk. He seems to be terrified of blankets. It took me a week to even get one on him. He would scoot away and back up rapidly whenever I tried. By working slowly, I was finally able to get one on him and buckled. He also seems more skittish once the blanket is on, as if the sensation frightens him. Why doesn’t my horse like his blanket?
      I have no information on his back-ground; the person I purchased him from hadn’t owned him for long. I have no trouble putting a saddle on this horse and riding him, but a blanket seems to overwhelm him. Winters are pretty cold here, so I’m going to have to go through all this again. Is there anything else I can try?

A: Before we tackle how to make your horse more comfortable with a blanket, let’s talk about whether he needs one. Each winter the blanketing debate erupts in online communities. Some people believe horses cannot withstand the cold weather without the added insulation of a blanket, while others claim blanketing hampers a horse’s ability to keep himself warm, pointing to the wild horses who roam the range in bitter cold without blankets.

The reality is that many horses can go without blankets but there are some in certain situations who do need them to protect their health and comfort. These include horses that are:
– body-clipped
– old or ill
– recovering from neglect
– in the process of adapting to a cold climate after living in a warm one
– lacking access to windbreaks or shelters, especially if the weather is cold and either windy or wet.

If your horse needs a blanket, you can do some simple things to make him more comfortable. First, make sure his blanket fits. Too small or too large blankets can chafe a horse’s chest or shoulders. Look for rub spots, and if he will let you do it safely, run your hand inside the blanket while he’s wearing it to feel for areas where it might be pinching him. A blanket that’s too big will sit too low down a horse’s sides, bumping his legs and posing an entanglement hazard.

Even if a blanket fits, the cut or the adjustments may be off. Make sure the straps are not too tight, causing rubbing, or too long, which will allow entanglement. Check to see if the blanket slides back and puts pressure on his withers. I once examined a horse with scarring along the top of his withers caused by a blanket that slid back. The blanket fit otherwise, but the neck opening was too large and cut wrong for that horse.

If the blanket fits and is adjusted well, but the horse is still spooky or uncomfortable, the material may be the problem. Some waterproof blankets are slick and may sound crackly (especially when new), which can bother horses. Canvas blankets lined with wool or wool/acrylic blends are quieter and may feel better to the horse.

Also make sure blanketing is a positive experience for your horse. Remove the blanket when the tem-perature rises or if the interior of the garment gets wet. Be sure to take off the blanket daily to check for rub marks or accumulated hay, shavings, stickers or thorns that might cause irritation.

Finally, if you can’t find a blanket that your horse seems to like, consider letting him go without one. As I mentioned earlier, if he’s healthy, has access to shelter and has his full winter coat, he may be happier and less stressed without a blanket!

Jennifer Williams, PhD
Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society
Waco, Texas

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