Blanketing the Dressage Athlete

Learn what options are available and what’s appropriate when.
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When it comes to show wear and performance gear for the horse, colorful clothing is much more than a fashion statement. Coolers, as well as quarter, dress and rain sheets serve a number of purposes for those competing and training horses. But what to use when and how to make a good choice can be puzzling. For just as there are countless hues to choose from, there is also a broad range of features to consider. We spoke to a groom, a vet and an equine massage therapist to get their take on the what, when and why.

Dress For Success


Designed to keep a show-ready horse spotless and dust-free, a dress sheet is a full-body covering made of anything from nylon to fine cotton to wool. It can be purchased off the rack or designed with simple or elaborate trim, in custom colors, with or without monograms and names embroidered across the horse’s hip. Also known as coolers, dress sheets are typically fashioned with a front buckle and a simple or intricately braided tail cord. They sometimes have surcingles or belly straps, but rarely have leg straps.

Liv Gude, owner of Professional Equine Grooms and a former professional groom to top U.S. dressage riders, believes that a dress sheet is not really something that will protect a horse from the elements, but that it is very useful. “The old-style wool cooler is a simple rectangle that is great for drying head to toe, but could be hazardous if the horse is left unsupervised and steps on the excess fabric or the garment slips over a dropped head,” says Gude. More typical today is a contoured cooler that hugs the butt. A higher neck means an even better fit and, says Gude, is less damaging to the mane.

Make sure that the fit allows the horse to extend his shoulder to walk comfortably. If the shoulder is restricted, the sheet may also cause rubs. Fleece tends to have more give than wool, and some manufacturers offer a nylon lining in the shoulder to help limit rubbing. But this lining can also make the horse hot and sweaty.

“Any time a blanket or cooler is worn, leg straps and a surcingle must be safely secured unless the horse is contained in cross ties and under supervision,” says Gude. “Movement in a blanket without security can create a dangerous situation. Tail cords may look classy, but they do not replace leg straps.” 

When it comes to trailering, Gude uses outside temperature and whether or not a horse is clipped as a guide to blanket or not. And when she does cover a horse in a trailer it is always with a garment with belly and leg straps but without a tail cord that could catch on something. When en route to a show, she uses a light sheet to keep the horse clean. 

“People tend to forget that horses are not uncomfortable at 50 degrees, like people are,” she says. “On a moving trailer, horses use energy, which creates heat, just to balance themselves.” 

Workout Gear


Coolers and quarter sheets—a cover used behind the saddle when first warming up—are often used for their ability to keep the muscles warm. “On colder days, when I am working on a horse or even grooming and tacking up those I ride, I will keep every part covered as long as I can, only uncovering those sections I am working on as needed,” says Heather Swann, a certified equine sports massage therapist and dressage enthusiast. If the horse is extremely cold, she explains, shivering will stimulate circulation to bring heat to the body. But when asked to function without proper preparation, too much shivering can cause a tight muscle to go into a spasm. This can happen particularly during cool down, says Swann, when the body goes from intense to less-intense activity and is affected by the ambient temperature; muscles get cold and contract too quickly. 

Elizabeth J. Davidson, DVM, DACVS, DACVSMR and associate professor of sports medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center, says that while common sense says blanketed muscles will be warm and therefore have greater blood flow, there is no actual scientific proof of such a benefit from blankets.

“It’s true that maximizing blood flow is key to allowing normal muscles to work to the peak of their ability, but blood flow increases the instant the horse starts to move,” explains Davidson. “Because of their very large spleen, horses have an amazing ability to increase blood volume to areas of need rapidly. As flight animals, they have evolved to gallop away from predators quickly and effectively within an instant due to rapid increases in blood flow.”

Consider the Fabric


A cotton or nylon dress sheet will protect your horse from dust and dirt. A wool dress sheet will help with cooling a horse down after a workout. “Wool coolers are absolutely the best in being able to allow your horse to dry because the natural fiber lets moisture to escape while capturing heat,” says Gude. 

Polyester fleece has some of the qualities of wool. It isn’t as efficient at allowing moisture to escape but it does have the ability to wick moisture away from the horse. “Unlike wool,” says Gude, “you can easily wash and dry fleece.” 

Another fabric that dries quickly is the Irish knit. Traditionally fashioned of cotton, and now more and more available in cotton blends, the porous, open knit allows airflow to cut down on drying time, especially effective in a warmer climate where a wool cooler would make the horse too hot. 

 A word about trims: No one will argue that they look great. Matching dress sheets with trim that plays up the colors of your barn or club give a polished look at a competition and reinforce that team feeling. But if you have a horse that likes to nibble on things, that trim might just give him a little extra something to grab with his teeth. 

Therapeutic Options


In recent years, magnetic and other high-tech blanketing options have become available to help increase blood circulation and reduce soreness and inflammation. One such option is a sheet made of polyester fused with ceramic particles—a fabric that reflects body heat, increasing blood circulation. “They won’t let the body get too cold or overheat,” says Swann, who is a big fan. 

Again, Davidson says that there is strong anecdotal support for the benefits of both magnetic and ceramic blankets, although their actual benefits have not been scientifically proven. “The good news is that both types of blankets are really safe, unless they are improperly placed,” she says.

Keeping Dry


Because a dress sheet won’t keep a horse dry, a rain sheet is a practical option for walking a horse around the show grounds in wet weather. Typically fashioned of a waterproof shell with a thin nylon lining, it can be used on its own or over the dress sheet. 

Performance will increase as the denier (the unit of measurement describing fabric strength) goes up. “The fabric is a function of the denier,” says Gude. “Blankets usually range from 200 to 2100. The higher the denier, the more windproof and waterproof the fabric will be. A higher count is necessary for those garments protecting a horse that is living outside, but for a rain sheet used at a show, you can get away with one that is not as high.” Gude advises you to rewaterproof the fabric regularly. 

In the end, knowing when to blanket and what to use can be a daunting decision. But following the guidelines given by manufacturers and retailers can help you make informed decisions when it comes to your horse. And if you still have questions, never hesitate to ask your vet for advice.