Blanket Blunders

Learn how horse blankets can cause more harm than good, and what you can do to avoid common blanketing mistakes.

The young girl taking care of the geriatric mare while her owner was out of town had called my emergency pager in a panic. “Misty has a terrible wound on her withers,” she gasped through her tears, “I need help right away!”

When I arrived, I could smell it from across the barn. The gaping wound was big, gooey, and painful to the touch.  It was also located right under where the horse’s blanket normally rested on her withers. The poor girl had taken the blanket off to groom the old lady in the owner’s absence. Unfortunately, that blanket hadn’t been taken off in a very long time.

Think this could never happen to you? Don’t be so sure. You might be surprised to learn that this wasn’t a place where these kinds of things are common. In fact, it was at a well-managed barn with a caring owner who made an innocent mistake. And blanket injuries like this are much more common than you might realize.

In this article, I’m going to tell you about some of the most common blanketing mistakes I’ve seen in practice, and how you can avoid them. But first, I’m going to help you decide whether your horse needs a blanket at all.

Photo by Marlinda vd Spek/stock.adobe.com

To Blanket or not to Blanket?

Pumpkin spiced lattes, football games, and color-changing leaves, that’s what most people think of when the crisp, cool days first arrive. If you’re a horse person however, chances are breaking out the blankets is one of the first things that comes to mind. 

Does your horse have a wardrobe that would be the envy of the most fashion-conscious teenager? Or are you more of a “one-stop-shop” kind of owner with more limited options? And how do you decide when it’s time to start outfitting your horse for winter? Here’s a thought: Do you need to outfit your horse at all? That’s the first decision you should make. Because believe it or not, blankets aren’t without risk, and in many situations your horse may not need one. Here’s how to decide. 

Heat Retention

In part because of their large size, horses are able to retain heat and stay warm at much lower temperatures than humans can. The “thermoneutral zone,” or temperature where a horse can maintain body temperature without expending any excess energy, is between 40- and 80-degrees Fahrenheit. And if it isn’t windy or wet, a horse can tolerate temperatures of zero, or even lower as long as they have adequate shelter. Of course, this assumes the horse is healthy, acclimated to the conditions, and has a good winter coat.

All this means that if you have a healthy, young, or mature horse with a good winter coat, it might be best to skip a blanket altogether. But if your horse is body clipped or elderly with compromised health, a blanket is probably needed. Lastly, if you like to ride during winter months and your horse thinks wallowing in mud during turn-out time is a fun activity, blanketing might seem essential—as much to keep you sane as it is to keep him warm!

Top 10 Blanket Blunders

(and how to avoid them)

If you’ve come to the conclusion that your horse really does need a blanket, you’ll want to avoid the following common blanketing mistakes to make sure he’s protected, safe, and clean!

Blunder #1: Skipping Blanket Checks

Regularly checking underneath your horse’s blanket is one of the most important things you need to do to keep him safe. If you ride every day, this isn’t a concern. But if your horse is a retiree or companion horse that doesn’t have a regular job, it’s easy to outfit him in a blanket in the pasture and then lose track of time! Problem is, if you don’t look, you’ll never know if your horse has a bad blanket injury like the one my client found on her old mare. You’ll also never know if the blanket is damaged or leaking in the rain, or if your horse has lost a significant amount of weight. You don’t want to be surprised by what you find when you remove your horse’s blanket in the spring. 

Avoid this by: Making a point of doing a visual inspection of your horse’s blanket every day at feeding time. And removing it a minimum of two to three times every week to check in on your horse’s condition. 

Blunder #2: Strap Control

Blanket straps are one of the most common sources of blanket injury. I’ve seen significant soft tissue injuries because of legs getting caught in too-loose straps, and serious wounds caused by poorly adjusted straps that rub. I’ve even heard stories of horses getting trapped when snaps get caught on fences, stall guards, or hay nets. 

Avoid this by: Choosing the right straps and making sure they’re adjusted properly. Surcingle straps around your horse’s belly should be adjusted so that they don’t dangle. But you can also run your hand easily underneath them. Leg straps are safest if they’re made from elastic material with easily broken snaps. As well as if they don’t hang below your horse’s hocks, and you attach them by crossing them over or looping them through each other. Better yet? Avoid leg straps altogether by using a butt strap that runs under your horse’s tail to help hold your blanket in place.  Finally, if your front blanket closure has snaps, turn the open ends of the snaps inward toward your horse so they won’t hook on fences or stall grates if your horse rubs his chest. 

Blunder #3: Size and Fit

We’ve all seen those annoying blanket rubs that cause hair loss on our horses’ shoulders—but did you realize these rubs can progress to the point where your horse gets sore, or even lame under saddle?  The same is true when blankets dig into the base of your horse’s neck in front of his withers.

Avoid this by: Measuring your horse before you buy and finding a blanket style that’s right for his physique. For sizing, measure the distance from the middle of your horse’s chest to his tail. Then choose a blanket that covers his body without hanging down too low. A well-fitted blanket should hang just below his elbows in front, and stifles in back. Additionally, the style of blanket that’s right for a big-bodied Quarter Horse may be different from one for a svelte Arabian. Features such as darts in the shoulders or a cutback at the withers can help accommodate different physiques. 

If your horse’s blanket has leg straps on them, make sure they’re adjusted properly and that they don’t hang below your horse’s hocks. Photo by Devin Conley

Blunder #4: Not Choosing Wisely

Your horse is turned out in his blanket, and when you take it off, he’s soaking wet underneath. Or it’s rainy but warm outside, and when you remove his blanket, you see that he’s sweating around his chest and shoulders. In both situations he’ll not only be uncomfortable, but his skin can also become irritated or infected because of the warm, wet environment that microbial organisms love.

Avoid this by: Choosing the correct blanket for the conditions. Many stable blankets are designed to keep your horse warm in his stall but won’t protect him from the rain. If you’re going to turn your horse out in a blanket, make sure it’ll repel water and keep him dry. And if it’s wet, but warm, choose a light water repellant sheet rather than a heavier turnout blanket. When you choose to keep your horse blanketed, it’s important to have different options available for different conditions. (That said, a well fitted turn-out blanket can often be worn in the stable, which will help reduce the number of outfits in your horse’s closet.) 

Blunder #5: Over- or Underblanketing

You’ve learned that horses can be quite comfortable in very low temperatures. And perhaps one of the most common blanket blunders I’ve encountered is horses sweating under multiple layers of too-hot blankets. Not only is this uncomfortable for your horse, but also it can be downright dangerous if he becomes overheated. And remember, even if his body temperature doesn’t soar, long-term sweating under a blanket isn’t good for his skin. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a light sheet probably won’t be enough to keep your body-clipped horse warm when temperatures plummet.

Avoid this by: Paying attention to your horse. While many horse owners have temperature “rules” about what blanket to choose, your horse knows best. If you notice that your horse is sweating under his blanket or showing other signs of overheating such as an increased respiratory rate, it’s probably time to remove a layer. And if he shows signs of being cold like shivering, he may need something more to keep
him warm. 

Blunder #6: Skipping the Waterproofing

Even if a blanket was originally designed for turn-out in wet conditions, it may lose its ability to repel water as it ages. Once again, a horse turned out in the rain in a blanket that isn’t waterproof will not only get cold, but also he may develop skin conditions over time. 

Avoid this by: Re-waterproofing your turn-out blankets every year. You can do this yourself. Or, for the best results, consider sending your blankets out to a professional that provides waterproofing services. And be aware—no blanket lasts forever. If waterproofing becomes impossible it may be time to plan to use that blanket only in the stable, or to retire it altogether. 

Blunder #7: Too Much Wear and Tear

Horses are hard on their clothing. Broken straps, torn blankets, and thick layers of mud are all a regular occurrence. Problem is, broken straps mean legs get caught. Tears mean water can get in. And layers of mud (or poop!) mean your horse’s skin is constantly exposed to microorganisms that can cause infections. 

Avoid this by: Keeping your blankets clean and in good repair. If you don’t have the ability to wash them yourself, send them out to the professionals. And when it comes to horse blankets, “a stitch in time…” has never been truer. A small tear that can easily be patched will quickly become a giant, gaping hole that can’t be fixed. When outfitting your horse, it’s ideal to have backup blankets available to allow for sending his regular clothes out. It’s also wise to plan on having all of his outfits cleaned and repaired at the end of every blanket season. This is so they can be stored and will be ready and waiting the following year. 

Blunder #8: Putting on a Wet Blanket

If you haven’t gotten the message yet about the risks of wet hair underneath your horse’s blanket, one final blunder to avoid is putting your horse’s blanket on when he’s still wet after a ride. Once again, the perfect setup for bacteria or fungi to thrive is created by all that moisture.

Avoid this by: Drying your horse after every ride. If toweling him doesn’t do the trick, consider using an electric hair dryer. And if your horse is a sweater, body clipping will prevent him from overheating when he’s working hard, help keep his skin healthier, and save you hours of drying time. 

Blunder #9: Static Cling

We’ve talked a lot about blunders that involve you horse getting (or staying) wet. But what about the opposite? If you live in a dry climate, chances are good you’ve experienced those electric shocks that cause your horse to jump out of his skin when you run a brush along his side. The same can happen with a blanket! If your horse gets shocked when you put the blanket on or take it off, he can easily startle. Even if he doesn’t hurt himself, your toes may pay the price!

Avoid this by: Applying an anti-static spray to the inside of his blanket. Designed to be long-lasting, some of these products will only require application when laundering blankets. If you still have static troubles, consider running an anti-static dryer sheet across his back and sides as your final grooming step before you blanket.

Blunder #10: Rushing the First Time

Final words of wisdom: If your horse has never seen a blanket before, don’t strap one on and wait to see what happens. (I almost killed one of my technicians once by asking her to go blanket a young horse, forgetting it was his first time!). While a blanket might be accepted without issue by some laid-back horses, others may become terrified and potentially injure themselves while attempting to escape.

Avoid this by: Taking the time to introduce a blanket gradually to a young or inexperienced horse.

[Read more from Dr. Crabbe]

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