The Great Canadian Equine Cover Up
By Margaret Evans
If you’re in the market for a new turnout blanket for your horse, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a great selection to choose from. Blanket technology has come a long way from the days of those heavy New Zealand rugs; today’s blanket shopper can select from a range of features and options to find the blanket that fits both their horse’s winter wardrobe needs and their budget.
Before heading to the tack store, spend time spent thinking about your horse’s needs and learning about today’s blanket features, which will help you make a good decision. Durability is an important factor in a turnout blanket because horses can be very hard on their apparel. The blanket should be well-constructed of rip-stop fabric that is both breathable and waterproof. It should fit properly, allow the horse freedom to move comfortably, and stay in place during energetic activity. Prices will vary depending on quality and the intended use, and styles and colours abound to suit personal preferences.
The blanket should allow the horse to move freely and should stay in place during vigorous activity. Photo: Thowra_uk/Flickr
Getting a Good Fit
When blanket shopping, the immediate need is to know the correct size of blanket for each horse, which means accurate measuring.
“It is suggested to measure from the centre of the chest to the centre of the tail and subtract between two and four inches,” explains April Ray, who has extensive experience selling blankets in tack stores and who is currently sales manager with Canadian Horse Journal. “I find measuring can be a great place to start, but for the most part being able to actually try the blankets is much more effective. Some tack shops will let you take a few different blankets on approval to try. This will give you a chance to see what brand and type of blanket fits your horse well. Just like clothing sizes for people, you can be a size six in one brand and a ten in another, and blankets for horses are much the same. Most staff at your tack shop should know if the blanket fits true to size or runs large or small. They should also know which brand fits a particular body type, some being better for the larger Warmbloods and some being better suited to a horse with a smaller build.”
To measure your horse, secure him on a level surface. Using a cloth measuring tape, hold one end at the centre of the chest. With your other hand stretch it around the widest point of the shoulder. Keeping the tape taunt, extend it along the side of the horse to the mid-point of the buttocks. Record the total length as it will determine the size of the blanket. Photo: ©iStock.com/Global P
The philosophy of trying on a blanket before buying is popular. If a tack store is willing to let you try a few, protect them from dirt or loose hair by brushing your horse and perhaps putting an old, light bedsheet over him before putting on the blanket.
“Measuring horses is good for a ballpark starting point, but the only reliable way to know if it fits is to actually put it on the horse,” says Alison Whitehouse with The Horse Store in Calgary, Alberta. “Start shopping before the first blast of cold weather, and be aware that you may have to try on multiple brands and sizes before you find the right one. If you are at a barn, trying on a friend’s horse blankets may help. Make sure to take note of the brand and size. When blanket shopping, at the very least be armed with the height, approximate weight, and breed of the horse you are fitting.”
Whitehouse says that a well-fitting blanket will not be droopy at the chest or hanging off the horse’s rear end. She suggests slipping your hand in the front of the blanket while the horse is eating something off the ground. The horse should be able to lower his head without restriction. The blanket should stay in place and not be so snug that it feels tight on the hand or pinches anywhere. Your flat hand should slide easily around the neck hole and over the withers, and there should be adequate freedom of movement at the shoulder without it being sloppily loose.
Blanketed horses should be checked regularly for loose straps and broken buckles that can cause the blanket to move out of position. Photo: ©CanStock/Virgonira
“A really important thing to do is to watch your horse walk in it and look at the shoulders,” says Ray. “If it pulls tight and impedes movement you can guarantee it will rub their shoulders over time. Most blankets now have shoulder gussets, which should help avoid that.”
A well-fitting blanket allows the horse to comfortably lower his head without any restriction. Photo: SeanPavone/CanStock
To place a blanket on a horse, have him securely tied. Fold the blanket width-ways so that it is inside out. Lay it over the horse’s lower neck and withers so it drapes equally on both sides. Unfold it down the back, but before pulling it into place fasten it at the chest. Then pull it gently into position from the back, being sure to keep it centered so that it drapes equally on both sides. Be sure you horse is standing squarely for this, and not resting a hind leg. Placing the blanket this way will ensure that the coat hairs lie smooth. Fasten the criss-crossed belly straps and, last of all, secure the straps around the hind legs. (When removing the blanket, do the process in reverse.)
The hind leg straps should allow freedom of movement and be secure without drooping. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Adjust the straps so that the cross-over belly straps have just a few inches of clearance but aren’t drooping, which could cause the dangerous situation of a foot being caught if the horse rolls or kicks at a fly. The hind leg straps must be secure but allow freedom of natural movement, including freely cantering. Be sure that the buckle/clip system clips firmly and permanently and is in good working order. Check the length of the tail flap, which should not prevent the horse from lifting its tail.
Once the blanket has been in use for a while, check it again for correct fit; blanket rubs are a telltale sign of fitting problems.
The tail flap should not be so long as to prevent the horse from lifting his tail. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Blanket Based on Need
Generally, we tend to over-blanket horses. Remember, these are animals that evolved exclusively on the North American continent over 55 million years and became the modern Equus well before migrating to Asia, Europe, and Africa. They know a thing or two about adjusting to weather conditions; their habit of rolling is not only to remove itchy dead hair, but also to coat themselves in mud that dries, cakes, and becomes their natural blanket. Depending on the individual and the climate, a healthy horse with a thick winter coat will be comfortable without a blanket as long as shelter from rain, snow, and wind is available.
Healthy horses with a thick hair coat are quite comfortable without a blanket if they have shelter from rain, snow, and wind. But horses that are clipped, thin, sick, or elderly will need the extra warmth provided by a blanket. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
“Yes, we over-blanket,” says Whitehouse. “We see horses that go from winter blanket to mid-weight blanket to rain sheet to summer sheet to fly sheet and then back into fall-weight blankets. Their coats are never exposed to the sun. If the horse is clipped, old, sick, or has poor shelter, then by all means put a blanket on. But this does not mean it goes on in October and comes off in April. If the weather moderates, blankets should come off when possible, especially in Calgary when the chinooks blow in.”
That being said, blanketing is appropriate for older horses, sick or compromised horses living outside, breeds with thin coats, horses that have been clipped, horses that have been imported from a warmer climate and have not had time to acclimatize, or those living in regions with extreme weather conditions (last year’s brutal winter on the prairies and east to the Atlantic provinces is a classic example). A blanket that is too heavy can cause the horse to sweat and become chilled. Think of wearing a heavy jacket when the temperature heats up – you will start sweating, then the clothing will get cold and damp, and you’ll become chilled.
It is also important to remember that if a horse is to be blanketed for a reasonable period of time or a complete season, the coat growth will be compromised. The blanket replaces the need to grow a coat for warmth. So if the decision is made to blanket for the winter, then blanket management must be intelligently maintained with constant adjustments as the weather changes. It can be a lot of work, so it is prudent to really think through the need to blanket for an extended period.
“I think in many cases we overdo it, but it comes from a place of love,” says Ray. “Horses are designed to be outside, and as long as they have shelter available they should be okay. Of course, the individual horse and situation should be considered. If you are clipping your horse, for example, you will need to replace the coat you took off with an appropriate blanket for the climate you’re in.”
“Be careful with day/night,” cautions Lea Bates, owner of Bates Tack Shop in Langley, BC. “If your horse is in a barn that has closed windows and doors at night, he will need a lighter blanket than when he is turned outside in the daytime.”
Blankets should be adjusted when the weather changes. When temperatures warm up, your horse will quickly become overheated in a heavy blanket. Photo: ©Canstock/smikeymikey1
Horse owners today benefit from blanket technology that offers efficient choices to meet changing weather needs in quick and simple ways.
“Layers are easy to manage and easier on the budget,” says Bates. “You can start with a rain sheet and then add a liner in various weights of 100, 200, 300, or 400 grams. Or start with a 200 or 300 gram medium weight blanket in early fall and add an additional liner when the weather turns cold. Neck attachments are handy for cold horses or horses that don’t have shelter. As well, there are blankets that have a tail cord instead of leg straps, which is brilliant when it comes to layering, and eliminates multiple leg straps on the horse.”
Taking the concept of layers a step further, the new clip-in liners are a major step forward in blanket management, offering the ability to adjust to changes in weather quickly. They allow horses can be rugged only to the degree needed for specific weather conditions.
“The clip-in liners are the best recent development,” says Ray. “They allow you to basically have a rain sheet or lightweight waterproof blanket and the option to clip-in various weighted liners to that top sheet, removing the need to put on and take off two separate blankets. It’s also much more cost effective. Rather than having several different blankets for the year, you are pretty much covered from early fall to late spring with this system if you have a couple of different liners depending on the climate you’re in.”
Blankets, and the new clip-in liners, are weighted by their gram fill. The “weight” is the amount of polyfill between the inner and outer layers. The Turnout Wardrobe Chart below is a guideline to choosing an appropriate blanket weight depending on the temperature, your horse’s coat, and whether he is clipped.
Durability in blankets is expressed by denier which measures the number of threads in the material; the higher the denier number, the stronger the fabric. Today’s fabrics are mostly polyester, nylon, or other synthetic materials. The most important factor, says Bates, is breathability. Natural fabrics like wool may be preferable to some people, but they take forever to dry when they get wet, and the occasional horse is allergic to wool.
Some riders committed to using blankets have a veritable wardrobe for their horse. “Riders who are dedicated to blanketing usually have a wardrobe for all occasions and often have an older backup for each blanket weight!” says Whitehouse.
Ray agrees. “I have had customers who have backup blankets for when their rug gets too wet, especially in our climate here on the west coast. Some people will hang blankets overnight to dry while their horses are in, but that’s always a challenge depending on space and heat source. It’s also handy to have a backup in case repairs, such as a rip or leak in the blanket, are needed.”
Blanket management includes making sure your blankets are clean, dry, and in good condition for daily use. Horse blankets can be professionally cleaned in a horse blanket laundry facility, where repair services are usually available. If washing the blankets yourself, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions and rinse thoroughly - Whitehouse has seen sensitivities caused by detergent residue left over from washing.
Blankets should be checked regularly for wear and tear, and broken straps and buckles should be promptly replaced. Yearly maintenance is also important; blankets should be cleaned and waterproofed before being put in dry, rodent-proof storage when not in use.
Blanketed horses should also be checked regularly for loose straps, broken buckles, and other wardrobe malfunctions that could become hazards. Wet blankets should be changed, because a cold, wet blanket will do more harm than good.
Buy the highest quality blanket you can afford. “The saying You get what you pay for really rings true when it comes to blankets,” says Ray. “A bigger investment in a better quality blanket will pay off in no time. Buying cheap will soon find you back at the tack store to replace your blanket, or will result in costly repairs while leaving your horse without the comfortable, warm blanket he’s been accustomed to.”
This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Main article photo: Robin Duncan Photography