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What’s In A Blanket?


By Leigh Ballard

Your horse of course! But how much blanket does he need, and why? We human weaklings look out at a cold dreary day and shiver, or huddle against a sharp wintry wind, but have you noticed how invigorating the cold seems to be for the horses? They actually seem to prefer winter sometimes.

Most healthy outdoor horses are adequately prepared for winter’s chill. They start growing a new winter coat in the fall, and by winter they are the proud owners of a fluffy coat that rivals any winter blanket. However, all horses are not in prime health, all are not accustomed to full-time pasture living, and some are in work or showing schedules that require that their coats be clipped. Furthermore, in some cases breeding has created such a refined animal that wooly coats are not prevalent.

So how much protection from the winter does your horse really need? On a brisk sunny winter day your horse is probably fine with his natural hair coat, especially if there is a windbreak shelter and plenty of hay to generate body heat in the digestion process. But when the wind begins to howl, it rains, and temperatures fall below freezing there are many horses that will benefit from being blanketed. 

Blankets are rated by their insulating properties.  The insulating value is measured in grams or ounces. The least protection is provided by a sheet. Most sheets have no insulating properties, although some are sold with 80 grams of protection.  A mid-weight blanket is usually rated at 220 which means it has  220 grams fiberfill (or 8 oz.), and a heavyweight blanket usually has 380 grams of fiberfill. A mid-weight blanket is rated to keep a horse warm to 30 degrees F, while a heavyweight blanket provides warmth to around 15-20 degrees. As temperatures plunge lower, hoods and additional liners can be added to blankets to increase their warmth factor as needed.  Overheating can be a problem with winter blankets. A blanket weight that is appropriate for cold night temperatures may not be appropriate during sunny daytime turnout. A blanket that is too heavy can cause a horse to sweat, become damp under the blanket and then chill later which can cause illness. Therefore, a horse might need more than one type of blanket, or the blanket might need to be removed during warmer daytime conditions. In the mid-south, a medium-weight blanket is usually ample cold protection. With widely fluctuating temperatures in the mid-south, it is not advisable to leave a blanket on “permanently” for the winter. Besides the possibility of overheating, a horse needs to be checked for any weight loss or sores the blanket might hide.

The lining of most modern blankets is smooth polyester which is breathable and light. Between the lining and the outer shell is the fiberfill insulating layer. Sometimes this layer is polar fleece. A smooth lining helps keep the coat smooth assuming the blanket is put on properly by sliding it on from front to back in the direction of the hair coat.

The outer shell of the blanket has several features.  Blanket durability is an important feature since some horses like to bite or pull at the blankets, or they can become snagged on fences or trees. The outer shell is usually made of synthetic materials such as nylon or polyester. The durability factor is measured by numbers such as 420D which is low durability, up to 1680D which is considered exceptional durability. The letter D refers to “denier” which is a unit of textile measurement for the mass density of fibers. Terms such as “ripstop” and “ballistic” describe the polyester or nylon. Ripstop fabrics are woven with a reinforcing technique that makes them resistant to tearing and ripping, and tears that do occur can’t easily spread. Ballistic nylon was originally developed for flak jackets in WWII. For example, a 1200D Ripstop Polyester blanket is considered to be highly durable for most horses, whereas a 600D Ripstop Polyester is adequate for a horse that is “easy” on a blanket. A 1680D Ballistic Nylon blanket is about as tough as a blanket gets.

The outer shell of a turnout blanket also should be waterproof as well as breathable. A wet blanket does much more harm than good, causing the horse to lose rather than retain heat.  Also, moisture generated from normal respiration inside of the blanket needs to be able to escape. The inner lining should transport moisture so that it evaporates, and the outer shell should allow for evaporation as well. Natural fibers such as cotton or wool will retain moisture, and are not optimal for a turnout blanket’s interior or exterior. Some blanket shells are also touted to be windproof.

The fit of a blanket is very important too. A poorly fitting blanket can cause rub spots, sores, hair loss, or simply not fulfill its insulating purpose. Blankets can be purchased specifically for high withered horses, heavy-built horses, etc. Some blankets are outfitted with adjustable tabs at the shoulders and withers, or with contours and seams to help with good fit, and with shoulder gussets to allow freedom of movement. The size of a blanket is measured in inches from the center point of the chest, alongside the barrel and to the edge of the tail. If, for example, this distance is 84”, then the proper horse blanket size is 84. A blanket that is too tight is uncomfortable at best, and a too large blanket can actually be very dangerous if it is so loose as to slip off the side or under the horse.

Snap, buckle, or surcingle closures, closed or open-neck and belly bands are options for the way to get a blanket on and keep it on. Care should be taken with all these fasteners, as a horse can become tangled and panicked in a blanket, resulting in serious injury.

Yearly blanket maintenance is important.  Maintaining the integrity of the waterproofing  and breathability aspects is achieved by hosing off accumulated dirt when possible, and laundering in warm or cool water with a special blanket wash is recommended. Fabric softeners or bleach should not be used. Blankets should be clean and dry before storing in an airtight container.

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