Yes!! The new catalog hit my mailbox and I grabbed it, searching earnestly for the new fall bargains on blankets for my horses. If you’re like me, you can’t wait for the catalogs to shop for new “clothes” for the boys each fall.
But not so fast — before you take the plunge, grab the plastic, and order that new Wicked Winter Puffball Extra Heavy Duty Turnout for your favorite pony — take a short wander through Horse Blanket Land.
One time, I decided to clean out my big plastic keepers in my spare stall, and lo and behold, counted up over 60 not-so-hot-anymore horse blankets. Needless to say, a few went to the trash, a few donated to the local rescue, and a few sold to friends and I got down to a manageable number for my current stable.
How many blankets should a horse have?
That depends entirely upon your climate, how much your horse is exercised during the coldest times of the year, and your preferences. If you are on the Eastern seaboard of the US, north of about North Carolina, I think you will want to have a range consisting of a waterproof turnout sheet, a waterproof and insulated medium weight turnout blanket, perhaps a neck cover to match that blanket, and a stable blanket and stable sheet.
If you ride in cold weather, you’ll also need some sort of cool-out system, either traditional wool or wool-acrylic coolers, fleece sheets, or cotton honeycomb sheets of some kind that wick moisture off a sweaty coat and allow the horse to dry reasonably well before blanketing.
A turnout sheet is a really useful garment in my climate, which ranges from about 45 to 65 Fahrenheit degrees in a typical fall night and day. A turnout sheet doesn’t have an insulating layer, but the better quality brands will still wick moisture and provide some protection from wind and rain.
As the days get colder at night, I’ll switch the evening turnout sheet to a turnout blanket in a medium weight (with an insulating layer of some kind); colder yet, and the neck cover is added, which I find provides just as much extra warmth as another layer. Finally, on a brutally cold or windy day I may add an extra body layer under the blanket, which could be the stable blanket.
These basics added together or subtracted seem to provide just about every protection scenario I need for my climate. We don’t have too much sub-zero weather, but we are in flat land and our wind can blow in the winter, so that brings me to my next study – fabric.
When you typically check the catalog descriptions of horse blankets, the fabric of choice for I’d say 95 percent of outdoor horse blankets today will be polyester of some kind. The days of the old canvas blankets are just about gone, although they can still be found.
The newer fabrics, measured by denier, are lighter in weight, stronger, hardier, many have incredibly super properties like wicking (moving moisture from one side of the fabric through to the other side) and other neat stuff. So when you are looking for an outside blanket, the denier does mean something.
“Denier” is the linear mass measurement of the fibers. For perspective, a single strand of silk is one denier. Lighter, more breathable fabric would be in the 600 range, while heavier, more closely woven fabric will have a higher denier number. In my experience, anything less than 600 won’t hold up under a playful mature horse’s teeth! The heavier denier fabrics are darn near indestructible, these days, although I know horses that could manage to shred just about anything, so I never say never.
What about insulating properties? In your catalog, most blankets are described as having a waterproof or water resistant outer shell of ripstop fabric — usually polyester, and of some denier number such as 600, 1000, or even up to 1600 (any higher is usually bulletproof type material!).
The next layer will have polyester spun batting, called fill. This is the stuff that helps to keep the horse warm by trapping body heat against the outer shell. If it didn’t transfer skin moisture, the blanket would be a soggy mess, so today the fill has some moisture transfer ability. 100 grams of fill would be light; 200 grams of fill medium, and 300 or more probably considered a heavyweight.
Why do we need insulation? Well, here’s the science: “To combat cold, evacuating skin humidity is still essential while several layers of materials with different properties are necessary to simultaneously achieve this goal while matching one’s internal heat production to the heat losses that occur. The key is layering for different purposes, as heat loss occurs due to wind, radiation of heat into space.”
How waterproof is waterproof? My newest blanket was purchased because it was touted as being “waterproof”, and doggone, it is. I can hit it with a hose, and the water is shed, yet it does act breathable. The fabrics have come a long, long way since the days of the old tan canvas turnouts, I think!
One of my biggest problems in fall and spring is over-blanketing, and coming home to find a sweaty, wet, clammy horse on a warm day with a heavy blanket on. If you work like me and are gone most of the day, you really should look into the new breathable fabrics. They do work and they make the horse comfortable when you can’t be there to change his clothes for him. While I don’t want a horse to get cold (especially if clipped), being too warm is also just as undesirable. I do read the tags and descriptions and try and match layers and weights to the weather.
There are some features of different blankets that get down into the individuality of your horse. “Full fit” is for a round horse, probably one wearing a “wide” tree saddle, and has a bit more drop in the fabric (extra length on the sides) since so much of the blanket is taken up over the back of a wide horse.
Front shoulder gussets help to provide room for the front legs to move back and forth as the horse moves about. I find the gussets on the sides to be more useful with my Thoroughbred type horses than the ones in the front.
There are often styles of blankets with cutouts behind the elbow or in front of the stifle. These help the horse move more freely and prevent flapping of the blanket. Quarter horse hip styles provide a bit more room in the quarters, perhaps with an extra dart to keep the blanket from pulling on the larger hip muscling.
Winter blankets often have a bit of extra material sewn at the wither, because this is the area of the blanket where the most stress is located. It’s the highest point of the horse, and the blanket weight is centered there.
On winter blankets, you’ll often see more modern blankets with the surcingles sewn in a criss cross pattern, and they’ll buckle low on the side. There’s a reason for that. High-buckling surcingles have a real chance of being rubbed open when a horse rolls, as his belly contacts the ground as he tips over. So by sewing them lower on the sides, they are less likely to open.
When a blanket opens and swings around on the horse, they are completely at the mercy of the horse and can be shredded instantly! You want to find a blanket that fits so well that it self-rights after a horse gallops, rolls, or plays. Not every style and pattern will fit every horse, and it pays to shop around, try on blankets, borrow some from a friend and see what will stay put and what isn’t going to work.
I have found over the years that blankets that do not fit usually rub a horse on the shoulders or hips and cause the inevitable “blanket burn” on their skin. Once you get that patch going, it’s hard to get it cleaned up the rest of the winter. To avoid that, I begin with blankets that fit comfortably and have room to swing but are not loose and shifty. In the beginning of winter, we often have “Blanket Try-On Day”, where I gather the ponies in the barn, pull out my big plastic keepers, and swing blankets on and off until I like the fit of one, and that one becomes theirs for the winter. I love Blanket Try-On Day. It’s like playing dress up with your horse! 🙂
Fastening the front buckles, straps, or surcingles has really upgraded in recent years. A super new design now has an adjustable strap and buckle but with a snap at the end of the strap that will hook to sewn on rings on the other side. Adjust the front once, then unsnap/snap it closed the rest of the winter. Boy does that save your fingers from the cold, because you don’t need to remove your gloves to open the blanket! I also like the double surcingle front close, because it’s a wider strap and causes less wear on the horses’ neck, and seems to keep the front of the blanket firmly closed without gaps.
Leg strap setups vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some have adjustable, stretchy straps with small snaps on the ends, that fasten to rings sewn inside the blanket side, go underneath the horse, and snap on rings at the tailside. These are the most common design. Where ever there is stitching on a blanket, there’s going to be a stress point, and the leg strap rings are often torn off because of that factor. Some leg straps, therefore, are looped through the inside ring, and snap in the back.
And some come with only one extra strap which goes simply under the tail from ring to ring in the back. I have come to appreciate the simplicity of that system and have converted some of my leg-strap blankets to the single strap for that reason. The reason for leg straps is simple; keeps the blanket from blowing up and folding over, and stabilizes the back portion from sliding off one side. Remember, the more a blanket moves about, the more chance it has of falling off and getting tangled in the horse’s feet, and being destroyed. So the leg straps have a purpose. They’re just a pain in the neck, and for goodness sake, don’t forget to unsnap them FIRST when you remove a blanket! (Eeek!)
Good outdoor turnout blankets today have great tail covers, which have really improved. They now have extra material allowing it to stay over the whole hindquarter, protecting the underside of the horse from cold, and the tail from dirt. Another great addition to the horse blankets are the nice neck covers, which I think are better than hoods for horse comfort. Neck covers properly adjusted and attached to blankets allow the horses to stretch down and graze normally without the bother of having the face and ears covered. And a neck cover really contains heat, in my experience. Even a light one seems to have the same effect as adding a blanket.
My goal in buying a winter blanket, or set of blankets, is to fit the horse first, then buy quality material with some extra features that make life easier, like the snap fronts. If it fits, if it’s made of good quality material, and if I take good care of it, it will last through several winters.