Blanket Coverage for Your Horse

It took you a good 20 minutes to get dressed to go out and feed this morning. Over the long underwear, the turtleneck, and the thermal socks, you still had to add three more layers, and struggle into your snowmobile boots, the better to wade through the snowdrifts. You hurried through the process, worrying that the voice on the radio was calling for record low temperatures and that your critters would really be feeling the cold. But as you waddled awkwardly across the yard to the paddock, the sight that met your eyes (in the woolly slit between scarf and hat) made you shake your head in wonder. For there in your field, looking like a gang of happy yaks, were your horses, gathered around the hayrack with snow piled on their backs--watching, with mild amusement, the Michelin Man approaching them, and obviously none the worse for wear.

Comfort Is Relative

Horses naturally are far better adapted to cold than we poor, hairless humans. It's not so very surprising when you recall that the natural habitat of ancestral equines, such as the tarpans and Przewalski's horse, wasn't the Arabian desert but the steppes of Russia and Mongolia. There they developed a supremely efficient means of insulating themselves against extreme temperatures. Left to their own devices, most horses will grow a thick layer of winter hair, which, because of the direction of its growth and its natural greasiness, easily repels moisture (you might have noticed this yourself when you gave your horse a bath--it takes quite a bit of water to get him wet!). This coat provides a weather shield so complete that horses can stand in the middle of a howling storm until ice forms on their backs, without the skin ever becoming chilled. The individual hairs stand up in cold weather, trapping an insulating layer of warm air close to the skin for extra snugness.

Thick manes and tails provide further protection. In particularly chilly conditions, horses turn their rumps to the wind, so that their tails blow between their hind legs, protecting the relatively delicate skin of the perineal area and the inner thighs. Furthermore, if given the chance, horses will lay down an insulating layer of fat under the skin in the fall. Finally, because horses have a comparatively small surface area compared to their large body size, they are very good at generating body heat and tend to lose it slowly. That's a disadvantage in summer, but a boon when the winter winds start to shriek.

Equine behavior patterns are designed to help conserve body heat. In severe cold, horses will huddle together to provide mutual shelter and share body heat. Occasionally, the whole herd might spontaneously burst into a gallop. Although it might look like simple good spirits to us, it's really a very practical strategy to increase the production of body heat. After a short run, the group will come back together in close formation to enjoy the increased warmth they've generated.

As cleverly designed as the equine winter coat is, it won't protect your horse in all conditions. In the absence of winds and precipitation, he can withstand temperatures down to -40 degrees Celsius without difficulty. High winds, however, can ruffle the hair and disturb that insulating layer of warm air trapped among the individual hairshafts. Cold driving rain or sleet can flatten the haircoat to the skin, and subsequent moisture evaporation from the surface of the hair only serves to chill things further. (Snow, surprisingly, is not that chilling--in fact, in some circumstances it can become an insulator.)

The combination of a cold wind and rain or sleet is probably the worst case scenario for a horse. Under those conditions, without shelter, he quickly can become chilled. That's why it's crucial to provide your horse with some sort of windbreak or shelter if he is going to spend time outside in the winter. A run-in shed, with the opening facing south to take advantage of any fleeting rays of sun, is ideal, but even a line of evergreen trees can provide some protection from winds.

Given that shelter is available, most veterinarians would agree that the average horse is healthier and happier left to his natural devices in the winter months. Horses which live outside suffer from fewer respiratory complaints on the whole than those which are stabled; and as long as they're provided with plenty of fiber in their diets and can move around in an unrestricted fashion, they'll have no trouble maintaining a comfortable internal temperature. (The old "ear test," in which an equine ear that feels cold to the human touch is supposed to indicate a chilled horse, isn't that reliable, by the way.) Although they might bear more than a passing resemblance to a yeti, they're really quite content.

When Blankets Are A Bonus

Of course there are circumstances in which a heavy winter coat just isn't practical. If you're planning to show throughout the winter months, or just have a lot of schooling and training to do, that heavy coat might be a liability, trapping sweat close to the skin and making your horse susceptible to post-exercise chilling. Not only that, but wet hair seems to take forever to dry, even when you rub your horse with straw, cover him with coolers, and walk him around--and around--and around. The alternative to leaving his coat au naturel is to body-clip him, removing all or part of his winter hair. Once you do this, you'll have a horse which is better prepared for exercise, but defenseless against the cold when he's standing still. Therefore, it's essential to provide him with winter protection in the form of weatherproof blankets, and to make sure he wears them every day until temperatures finally improve in the spring.

There are a number of other situations in which blanketing your horse might be a good idea. Some horses, particularly Thoroughbreds, naturally grow very sparse winter coats; they'll be warmer than first glance would suggest, but might still need some assistance if you live in a northerly clime. If you're moving your horse from a warmer part of the world to a colder one, he'll be unprepared for the temperature change, at least for the first few weeks. Therefore, you'll have to provide him with a blanket. If his immunities are down (for example, if he's recovering from illness or surgery), he'll appreciate an extra layer of warmth. The same goes for a foal born in the dead of winter (especially if premature). Finally, geriatric horses often grow extensive winter coats, but still might have trouble maintaining their internal thermostats with the efficiency of youth. If you notice your older horse shivering or standing with his head down looking miserable, it's time to provide him with a blanket.

Blankets certainly are a useful addition to the winter arsenal, but if your horse is not clipped, you might find that they do more harm than good. Placed on a horse which already has a winter haircoat, blankets flatten the hair and reduce its natural loft and insulating abilities. In effect, you can leave your horse colder than he would have been without your "help." It takes about two inches of artificial loft (blanket fabric) to replace effectively an inch of the horse's natural coat.

Still, blankets do have their uses, particularly when the winds and precipitation become fierce. Even a furry horse will appreciate the addition of a windproof and waterproof garment, such as a New Zealand rug or GoreTex blanket, on the wettest and stormiest days.

If your objective is to prevent your horse from getting furry in the fall, then you must begin to blanket him as soon as the days start getting shorter (the growth of winter hair is triggered by dwindling hours of daylight, not by temperature). Bear in mind that on those warm autumn days, he might swelter--so you'll have to watch him closely and change blanket weights as appropriate. Many show barns prefer to "short-circuit" the natural process of hair growth rather than clip--a clipped horse often shows a color change (chestnut equines, in particular, tend to turn a rather strange apricot shade) and looks a little "scalped" and dull-coated for a few weeks. Either way, if you clip or prevent hair growth, you'll have a commitment to provide your horse with warm blankets throughout the winter, and with shelter from the elements.

Horsey Haute Couture

Choosing an appropriate blanket for your horse is a complicated process these days. The simple jute rug with two straight surcingles and a fillet string in back has gone the way of the dinosaur (just as well, as it often ended up underneath your horse after a couple of hours!). In its place has arisen a bewildering array of high-tech garments, space-age materials, and innovative ways of keeping them in the right place on your horse. Horse blanket manufacturers have taken advantage of many of the warm, lightweight fabrics developed for skiers, incorporating them into stormproof, windproof, chafeproof, practically bulletproof creations which, while marvels of engineering, can put a serious dent in your pocketbook! If you do some smart shopping, however, you can find a useful blanket without having to take out a second mortgage. Look for the following features:

  • Find a blanket with no seam over the top-line; such a seam can let moisture leak through onto your horse's back in foul weather.
  • A tail guard (a flap that hangs down and covers part of the tail and the rump) provides extra protection when your horse turns his tail to the wind. Make sure it doesn't interfere with the ability to lift his (her) tail to pass manure and/or urine--otherwise you might have quite a mess on your blanket. Some blankets come with detachable tail guards.
  • For turnout, a fabric that is waterproof, but breathable, is your first priority.
  • Leg straps, which loop around the hind legs, are a must if you're planning to use the blanket for turnout; they're the most effective way of ensuring that the blanket remains in place. Leg straps have to be adjusted loosely to avoid restricting your horse�s range of motion, but be careful not to let them dangle too low or your horse can catch a hoof in an exuberant moment and cause himself injury. Some leg straps are elasticized; these probably are a better bet than the web kind (which also have a tendency to chafe), but have their own hazards. Hardware that "gives" fairly easily in an emergency entanglement is a good idea.
  • Surcingle arrangements vary, but in general the old-fashioned "straight" pair of surcingles did a poor job of keeping a blanket in place. Look for crossed surcingles or a single front strap combined with leg straps behind. Some blankets have locking arrangements that prevent horses from undoing the buckles and getting tangled up in the straps.
  • Shoulder gussets, a fairly recent innovation, help give your horse room to move and can help alleviate pressure on the shoulders.
  • The amount of warmth your horse needs will vary according to the climate and whether or not your horse lives outside. If you live in an area where the temperatures sometimes can be mild in the winter, be careful not to outfit your horse with the Alaska Extreme--on the warmer days, he'll sweat underneath his blanket, get wet, then get even more chilled. A lighter-weight blanket that mainly protects against wind and rain will be a better choice.
  • Look for double-reinforced box stitching at all of the stress points, and heavy duty hardware that won't give up the ghost at the first sign of plunging mercury.
  • Consider durability, too, particularly if your horse is out 24 hours a day, seven days a week--some blankets have "ripstop" surfaces, but no blanket, alas, is indestructible when faced with the endless creativity of an equine!

Some Other Tips

  • If you want your horse to be able to move in an unrestricted way and not develop rub-marks on his shoulders or withers, the blanket must fit correctly. Here�s where you might have to try on several to find the right brand and cut. Some blankets are more contoured than others. Some are cut back for high-withered horses, while others (particularly some of the European designs) are cut so that they go half-way up the horse's neck. Carmen Griscti, owner of Baker's Harness and Saddlery just north of Toronto, Ontario, says these designs are very successful at eliminating fit problems through the chest and shoulders for many horses, but occasionally, when put on a high-withered Thoroughbred, the "neck" portion of the blanket will tent up, providing a tunnel down which rain and snow will easily slide. To be sure, ask to take the blanket home to try on your horse before you commit.
  • Although "closed-front" blankets might be somewhat cheaper than the kinds that buckle across the chest, they're falling out of favor and might be hard to find. Closed-front blankets also can be something of a struggle to put on, but they do tend to stay in position well.
  • The heavier the denier of the outer material, the more durable and waterproof it will be. The 1,000 denier, for example, is a better (but more expensive) choice than the 300 or 500 denier.

Many people prefer to outfit their horses with a weatherproof blanket for outdoor use, and keep another, more lightweight rug for when the horse is stabled. The indoor rug doesn't need to be waterproof, of course, but it should be a good fit so that it stays in place when your horse lies down to sleep and gets up again. Be sure that the blanket you choose for outdoor use really is intended for that. A non-waterproofed fabric that gets soaked through at the first sign of snowflakes will only make your horse miserable.

Even with a weatherproof rug, there will be days when your horse will come in from the cold with some very damp clothing. The best scenario is always to have a spare rug on hand so that you can hang the wet one up to dry and outfit him with a warm, dry replacement in the meantime. Having extras also will bail you out should your horse manage, somehow, to make his blanket rather more well-ventilated than it originally was intended to be. (Very often, your local tack shop can patch rips and tears for you, as long as you don't bring them an offensively stinky blanket!)

Getting The Right Fit

When you measure your horse for a blanket, measure from the center of his chest, around the side, to the point of his hip or his tail. If your horse finds the tape measure scary, just use a piece of string (binder twine will do the job) and measure the string afterwards.

Blankets made in North America are sold in two-inch size increments, starting at about 58" for ponies (smaller sizes are available for miniatures from some specialty companies) and ranging up to 84" for a warmblood. Blankets originating from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand usually are sold in three-inch increments, i.e. 78", 81", and 84". Should your horse fall between measurements, opt for the larger size. If you need a blanket larger than 84", or if your horse is very broad (as many draft horses are), you might have to custom-order. A custom blanket might be the way to go if you experience unusual fit problems.

The most crucial area to fit properly is across the chest, shoulders, and withers. A blanket that is too large through the neck opening will droop in front, exposing the horse's chest and often sliding backwards on his body. The end result is restricted movement (which can make your horse cold) and rub marks everywhere. Just as bad is a blanket that is too small around the neck and chest. It will leave bare spots on your horse's shoulders for sure, and it might bind at the withers. Again, you might have to try several to find a blanket that suits your particular horse's conformation.

Blankets that rub all the hair off the points of the shoulders are probably the most common fit complaint. At best, shoulder rubs are unsightly; at worst, they can escalate to the point of open sores. Blankets that rub at the shoulders often bind at the withers as well, and a horse with sore withers is a horse which won't be terribly happy about wearing a saddle. In order to tackle the bare-shoulders problem, consider the following:

Getting the best fit possible (try customizing the blanket with shoulder gussets if it didn't come equipped with them).

  • Avoiding blankets that are too long and tend to drag backward.
  • Finding a blanket with a nylon lining, which will reduce friction and slide over the shoulders (many people also like the shine these blankets give to the coat). If your existing blanket doesn't have a slippery interior, you can get the same effect by buying some inexpensive satin blanket binding material at any fabric store and sewing two large squares of the fabric on the interior where the blanket meets the points of the shoulders.
  • Outfitting your horse with spandex "underwear" to protect his shoulders and chest. Several brands of these stretchy "bras" are now available in everything from basic black to exotic leopard prints. They can be a bit of a struggle to put on, but they do a good job of protecting the shoulders from chafing underneath a blanket.

The Care And Feeding Of Blankets

When you're blanket shopping, buy the best quality you can afford. A bargain blanket might not be such a bargain when your horse comes in from the cold shivering because the back seam leaked and soaked him to the skin, or with the blanket in tatters from a pasture skirmish, or he's tangled up in a blanket that's hanging sideways because the hardware gave way at the first little buck and kick.

Protect your investment by taking good care of your blankets. Remove them from your horse at least every other day and curry the loose hair and dirt from his coat, both to keep them from accumulating on the blanket and to provide your horse with some much needed itch-relief and oil-gland stimulation. (This also will allow you to assess your horse and discover any rub marks before they become serious.) Periodically, brush the lining of your blanket with a stiff dandy brush to remove excess hair and dirt. Extreme temperatures might prevent you from washing your blankets more than once or twice per winter, but try not to let them get to the point where they could stand up by themselves (apart from anything else, no laundromat will welcome you if you do!). Not all winter blankets are washable, of course--the canvas New Zealand rugs, still a great choice for wet wintry climes, should just be hosed off and hung in the sun to dry (probably a spring chore). If you have a blanket that is waterproofed, follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully when cleaning it to avoid its losing its moisture-repellent qualities. Some might need a special detergent; others might require a treatment with a fabric spray such as Scotchguard afterward (be prepared to use the whole can!).

About the Author

Tony Anderson, DVM

AAEP member Anton (Tony) Anderson, DVM, is a veterinarian with an equine and small animal practice in Evergreen, Colo.

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