The Great Blanket Cover-up

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Does your horse need to be blanketed this winter? It sure is cold out there, especially in northern climates with the wind whipping and the wet snow accumulating. But, to be perfectly honest, the only one who can tell you for certain if he needs weather protection is your horse. That said, here are some guidelines.

First, be forewarned. The number of non-blanketing advocates is growing. Fellow horse owners may chide you with the claim that it's simply not natural to blanket a horse. They will insist that by blanketing the horse, you slow his natural hair growth and cause him to "depend" upon the blanket for warmth instead of his own natural coat. They have a point, but don't take this as the last word.

It's true that if you start blanketing a horse, you'll likely need to continue blanketing throughout that season at least. But the extremists who insist you're harming your horse or you're foolish to blanket him, are all wet. No one can accurately state that no horse on earth ever needs to be blanketed.

That's a Wrap

  • While a natural hair coat may be best, horses that are young, old, cold or clipped need blankets.
  • Be sure not to use too much blanket for the weather so the horse doesn't overheat.
  • Look for waterproof and breathable blankets, especially for turnout.
  • Measure your horse and find the right size to avoid rubs and gaps.
  • A good strap and surcingle system goes a long way toward keeping blankets in place.

Blanketing Candidates
Certainly, the healthiest solution is to let your horse grow his long winter coat and provide him with adequate shelter from the wind and wet. Feed your horse free-choice hay (which generates body heat), and carefully monitor his weight by touch or an actual weight-measuring tape. Don't rely just on sight, as winter coats also do a good job hiding weight loss and protruding ribs.

If your horse is a mature adult, healthy and well fed, and not exercised hard enough to sweat during the cold months, by all means spend your money on something other than a winter blanket.

However, if your horse is old or young, you may need to blanket him. Both juveniles and geriatrics tend to need added protection from wind, wet and frigid temperatures. They simply aren't able to generate the body heat necessary to stay warm.

You'll note your horse is cold if he's standing with his head down and his tail tucked tight against his body. Usually, he'll put his tail toward the wind. Often the wet weather has matted down his coat, which decreases his natural protection. (It needs to be more upright to provide good insulation.)

Severe wind is nearly impossible for the horse to stay warm in without shelter or a blanket. A horse in this type of weather is miserable and may be shivering.

You can opt to put this horse in the barn during the worst weather and skip the problems associated with a turnout blanket. But if he's still shivering inside, he needs a stable blanket, at least until he's warm again. A horse that's shivering is too cold, and it's cruel not to address the problem. Making a horse comfortable in occasional odd weather extremes is not going to cause him to stop growing a winter coat.

Horses that are worked hard during colder months-to the point of breaking out in a sweat-can benefit from being body clipped so that the coat will dry more quickly and reduce their chances of catching a chill. If a horse is clipped, he needs to be blanketed-period. You've taken away his natural warmth and protection.

Finally, some breeds of horses don't grow as thick a winter coat as others. Your little Shetland furball probably won't need a blanket ever in his lifetime. However, your sleek, 16-hand Thoroughbred's heaviest coat is still likely not enough to keep him warm in cold weather, let alone freezing, and that's whether he's clipped or not.

Any animal that's ill or has a compromised immune system that makes him more susceptible to illnesses and less likely to fight off sickness when stressed from cold and wet conditions will need the added help from a winter blanket. If you're not sure, your veterinarian can advise you.

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Blanket Liners

Frequently made of Lycra or fleece, these lightweight sheets are used to protect the horse from rubs and keep your blanket cleaner longer, allowing you to wash the liner (which is smaller and easier to do) more frequently than the heavier blanket. Darker colors tend to be better for these workhorses, and some liners are durable enough to double as stable blankets.

Some of the slicker liners are said to constantly "groom" the horse's coat and keep it shiny. These liners are usually made of nylon and polycotton. The original blanket liners were actually lightweight cotton stable sheets.

Be sure the liner style/size matches your blanket, as you don't want it to stick out from under the blanket. Liners don't necessarily need leg straps and lots of surcingles (sometimes just one front buckle), unless you want it to double as stable sheet. If you do, you may want a liner with removable surcingles. Liners should also be rather lightweight and thin. The Dover Saddlery Northwind Fleece Sheet antipill polyfleece is a good liner choice with only one buckle closure and a hidden belly surcingle.

While many companies now market various types of undergarments for horses, one of the first makers of stretchy, tight-fitting liners and underblankets was Sleazy Sleepwear for Horses (www.ss4horses.com, 800-356-2799). Their original goal was to protect the horse's coat from rubs and keep it slick. The company also offers a huge variety of fun designs, prints and styles, including a new line of blankets. It offers a shoulder-guard liner that just protects the shoulders and one that protects the neck and face without the shoulders, called the Lycra Brief.

Watch the Thermometer
Just as a horse shouldn't get too cold, he also shouldn't be allowed to overheat. You can easily over-blanket your horse, causing him to sweat and become chilled because he's wet, as quickly as having no blanket at all.

Even "breathable" blankets will cause a horse to sweat too much if you choose too heavy a blanket for the day's conditions. It would be like you wearing even a light, cotton sweater when it's 80° outside.

If you're blanketing your horse in the morning and no one will be around to monitor him during the day, take care to know what the likely high temperature is going to be for the day and dress him suitably. You probably don't need a 340-gram fill insulation for a quiet late-fall day with temperatures in the upper 30s/low 40s. If you're going to blanket, you need to be prepared for a range of temperatures.

You can purchase several weights of blankets, including the heavily advertised "supreme" weather blankets available, as well as a lighter turnout. (Dover Saddlery makes a "Rider's Medium Weight Supreme Turnout Blanket" with only 200 grams of insulation, making it a better choice for warmer days.) You can also opt to put on more layers when you know the day will be colder by using liners and sheets.

A few companies, like Kensington Protective Products, Dover Saddlery, and Rambo/Horseware USA, make layering-system blankets. These are two to four layers of blankets designed to work together as one heavy blanket or as separate layers, much like the winter coats you can buy that have a zip-out light jacket that then can have the sleeves removed to become a vest. The choice is yours, but the goal is the same: Don't overdress the horse.

Some manufacturers will offer you recommended temperature ranges for their blankets, which is helpful. But, just like people, different horses have different tolerances. Slip your hand under the blanket to monitor how warm it feels to you and gauge if your horse seems comfortable or not. If he's damp, he's too hot.

Waterproof and Breathable
For turnouts, only purchase blankets that state they are waterproof and breathable. (Water-resistant will let a heavy rain or snow through, and we think they're best avoided.) Waterproof-breathable blankets keep outside moisture from going through the blanket down to the horse's skin, chilling him, but allow the natural moisture from your horse's skin to escape, keeping him dry and comfortable. Stable blankets don't have to be waterproof, of course, but they should be breathable.

Unfortunately, there's no surefire way to determine if a blanket is waterproof and breathable beyond taking the manufacturer's word for it and trying it. There is no hard-fast industry definition.

That said, you're not going to go wrong with Gore-Tex, a fabric known to be waterproof and breathable, if you can swallow the cost. Classic Cover-ups makes top-grade, well-manufactured and durable blankets from both Gore-Tex and the somewhat similar Sympatex. Its Horses In Black line of blankets feature black, non-rust hardware.

Always a top maker in equine clothing, Royal Riders uses ComfortBreathe Hytrel, a waterproof, breathable material from DuPont. Royal Riders offers the option of customizing any product for an additional charge, which includes colors, piping, hardware and design changes.

Blankets have come a long way since the rigid, stiff, canvas-like materials that took considerable effort to simply place on your horse, let alone clean them. There is a bounty of fabric choices that are waterproof and breathable, so choose the one that suits your taste and needs best. If it's been awhile since you've looked at blankets, you may be surprised at how lightweight and "user friendly" modern technology has made winter blankets. The lower-bulk Saratoga Horseworks Tempest turnout blanket for winter should make handling and washing a snap.

Fit is Foremost
A well-fitted blanket won't shift, rub or bind. Most manufacturer blanket measurements equal the length from the center of the horse's chest straight back, around the outside of the barrel, to the center of the horse's tail.

The majority of sizes are listed in even numbers, so if your horse measures 71, we'd first try a blanket size 70. Smaller sizes will likely have enough room for your horse, but are less likely to shift and twist.

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Rubs can occur from shifting side to side and front to back. Rubs and lost hair are big worries. While Mega-Tek Rebuilder from EQyss is a good topical product to promote rapid hair growth on rubbed spots, it's far better to prevent the rub marks in the first place.

Withers are a primary rub spot, so consider a turnout that goes up onto the neck (called a high-neck design), instead of one that ends right at the withers, such as the Rambo Wug from Horseware USA. Avoid large, open necks, which can easily slip back and get "hung" behind the withers. The Saratoga Horseworks Nor'easter also includes an excellent extended neck, adding warmth to the blanket.

Fleece lining at the withers, such as found on the WeatherBeeta Taka freestyle, and shoulder gussets, like on the Turtle Neck blankets, can help take pressure off the withers and shoulders. Shoulders are a stress point, too, and gussets also allow more freedom of movement, while keeping a warm, close fit.

Schneiders Saddlery's Adjusta-Fit Shoulder design is a great way to help you fit a difficult horse easily because you can change the closeness of the fit. Perhaps your horse is a perfect 72, for instance, but needs slightly more or less room at the shoulders.

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You'll also likely run into different designs. A contoured blanket means it's designed to fit the shape of the horse more closely, often with a dart in the hip area and a gusset or dart in the shoulder area, too. A Euro cut means the blanket is more draping and boxy, with longer sides and usually no back seams. A Quarter Horse cut is made to accommodate a horse with a more heavily muscled build. WeatherBeeta sells a line of Quarter Horse-cut blankets.

Blanket Materials

Cotton is the most secure material, is breathable and easy to wash. Some cotton fabrics are a bit stiff. Polycotton is a little softer than pure cotton.
Fleece is warm, lightweight, breathable and easy to wash. Fleece tends to be soft and cuddly. Fleece picks up a lot of debris, however.
Nylon or polyester materials are the warmest but also the heaviest. They are the most difficult to wash and keep clean. Nylon is usually the under-layer on a blanket, as it's not durable enough to be an outer layer on its own. Nylon also isn't breathable.
Textilene/PVC is a tough, mesh vinyl fabric that is more resistant to tears and snags. It tends to be a bit stiff, but you can usually clean it with a water hose and brush.
Gore-Tex and Sympatex are waterproof, windproof, highly breathable and expensive.
Lycra is great for preventing rubs and keeping the coat slick. However, Lycra needs to stretch to work, so don't go overboard on size.
Cordura is a tough, durable material that is easy to clean and water-resistant.
Wool is found in coolers and exercise sheets and occasionally in blanket linings, but it's expensive compared to more modern, synthetic options.


Straps and Surcingles
We like leg straps on both turnouts and stable blankets, because they do a good job minimizing shifting and twisting. However, be sure they're elastic (most are) so the horse can move freely, and preferably removable, so you can easily purchase replacements for broken ones.

You can crisscross the leg straps in several different methods, but be sure the horse has adequate length to move without feeling bound, but not so loose that he may step in the strap. Straps should be fairly high and close to the body. Some stores, like State Line Tack, sell replacement leg straps, blanket hardware and surcingles.

You can purchase blankets with a closed front, meaning you put the blanket on the horse by pulling it over his head, or a buckle front that you close after the blanket is on the horse. The buckle front is undeniably easier to use, but some horsemen don't like the way it can gap and let air in.

Our solution is to purchase an open-front blanket that we know closes well. One of the most impressive is the Hug Closure design from Kelley Equestrian Products™. This blanket literally overlaps and wraps around the front of the horse with elastic closures, stopping gaps but allowing excellent freedom of movement and reducing rubs. Another smart front-closure idea comes from WeatherBeeta. Their Taka freestyle features a clip and D front closure with 10 adjustment options.

Velcro can work well with most blankets and adjusts well to close gaps. It's especially nice for fleece, and it has some give for comfort. Heavy buckles can cause fleece to sag. However, nibbling horses can also open Velcro, so we would avoid using it as the only closure for turnout and many overnight situations.

For the most part, you're going to want two regular buckles on the chest, preferably with adjustment or some type of overlap. Just be sure it's set so that when closed, the chest won't gape open. We like Saratoga Horseworks' Blizzard Stable blanket, which includes a line of Velcro on the chest in addition to regular front straps to stop drafts/gapping. Reinforced buckle areas, like those found on blankets from BMB, avoid tears from the stress in that area.

On surcingles, we like the popular T-lock systems over actual buckles because they're easy to use. But they can slip open. To remedy that, try adding T-Lock fasteners, which are tiny, inexpensive rubber doughnuts that can help hold T-hooks in place. Surcingles should be 2" wide, and we prefer two of them. Surcingles that crisscross from front to back tend to stay in place better and are found on most blankets.

Accessories and Add-Ons

Hood: Covers the horse's face and usually his neck, too.
Neck cover or faceless hood: Covers the horse's neck, leaving his head uncovered.
Tail-flap or cover: An additional flap of material that goes over the top of the horse's tail for added protection.
Belly band: Usually found on fly sheets, but sometimes found on winter blankets, this is a wide band that protects the bottom of the horse's barrel, underneath his belly.
Tail cord: Goes under the horse's tail to keep the blanket in place (basically just something to get really dirty quickly, especially with mares).

Durability
All blankets need to be durable, whether you're using them on horses in stalls or on turnout. Horses rub, bite, roll, scratch and do seemingly anything else they can do to destroy their clothing.

This is where the word "denier" comes into play. Basically, the higher the denier, the tougher (and usually stiffer) the product-and the more expensive, of course. Among the most durable blankets we found are Glover Equine's The Guardian (1,350 denier), the Horseware USA Rambo Supreme (ballistic nylon shell), the WeatherBeeta Taka (1,260 denier) and the Hug Closure (1,680 denier ballistic nylon).

Bottom Line
Blanketing your horse is simple if you cover all your bases. First, determine if your horse truly needs to be blanketed. If he does, decide the temperature extremes for your climate and figure out if several different blankets or a system blanket would work better for you. Some horses need several different-weight blankets to get them through the cool early fall through the frigid winter and into the up-and-down extremes of spring.

Be sure you can handle both indoor and outdoor needs. Although your turnout blanket can technically double as a stable blanket, it's likely going to be too warm for indoors. Plus, you're going to remove the blanket every day anyway to inspect the horse for skin irritations, rubs, weight loss (or gain), and other possible problems. So alternating blankets isn't a lot of extra effort.

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Of course, you're going to have to be sure you have spare blankets on hand of each main type because blankets will need to be cleaned frequently. Brushing the inside and out of blankets to remove dirt, hair and dander can lengthen the time between actual trips to the laundromat to use their frontload, non-agitator large machines. Your horse will need to have a spare while the other is being washed and dried. (This is where liners can be a huge help.) Finally, if you don't have a fully stocked tack store open 24/7 near you, you're going to have to have a spare in the tack room for those inevitable blanket-destruction days.

Words You'll Hear

Denier: A linear mass of fibers. The higher the number, the more fibers (or threads) per 9,000 meters. Therefore, the higher the denier, the more durable the fabric.
Waterproof: Stops moisture from penetrating through the cloth.
Water-resistant: Keeps moisture from penetrating through the cloth. A heavy downpour or a lot of snow may leak through a water-resistant blanket.
Breathable: Allows the horse's perspiration to escape through the blanket, so he doesn't get wet from sweat under the blanket.
Ripstop: A lightweight, tear-resistant nylon.
3M Insulate/Primaloft/Hollofill/Fiberfill: High-loft filler materials for added warmth and insulation.
Microfiber: Made of a fiber thinner than a one-denier. Wicks moisture, resists debris better than fleece. Thin and easy to wash.