Selecting a blanket for your horse

A go-to guide for selecting the perfect blanket for your horse.

Over the years, I have accumulated quite the collection of blankets. While my horses generally go au natural in the cooler months, I do appreciate the minimum of a good rainsheet and cooler for each equine. Our winter season can be absolutely frigid, and being able to at least keep my horses dry during ice and snowstorms helps keep them more comfortable. (And as we all know, horses prefer standing in the middle of a field with their friends over using the nice run-in shed!).

Why blanket?

Many if not most horses can go without blankets provided they have access to adequate shelter, heated water, plenty of forage and a few friends. “A healthy horse can withstand temperatures well below freezing as long as it is sunny and the air is still,” writes Cherry Hill, author of over 30 books on horse training and care. “The winter coat absorbs heat from the sun and the horse’s body and traps it next to the skin. During cold temperatures, pilo erector muscles make the hair stand up which increases the coat’s insulating potential. Wind separates the hairs, thereby breaking the heat seal which results in a great loss of body warmth.

“Snow showers, sleet, and the freeze-and-thaw typical of many northern areas are particularly hard on horses,” she adds. “A wet hair coat conducts heat away from the horse many times faster than a dry hair coat. In addition, wet hair tends to become plastered close to the horse’s body, nullifying the air insulation potential of a fuzzy, erect winter coat.”

The rundown

Choosing a blanket for your horse can be overwhelming – there are numerous types, styles, options and colors to select from! Let’s start with a breakdown of the most common blanket types:

  • Stable sheet/summer sheet – Made of material such as acrylic yarn or poly cotton. Comes in varying weights, but usually a light sheet to be used in the stall, or as a layer under another blanket. Not ideal for turnout as they are not waterproof and often don’t hold up well to heavy wear and tear.
  • Dress sheet – This is commonly a cotton, wool or fleece sheet of excellent quality, with fancy piping or embroidery, used for horse shows.
  • Stable blanket/quilt – A heavier version of the stable sheet, with insulation values typically ranging from 150g to 300g.
  • Cooler – Typically fleece or wool, used after exercise to draw moisture away from the horse while keeping him from becoming chilled.
  • Flysheet – A mesh sheet that helps deter flies and other pests from bothering your horse.
  • Scrim/Irish knit – The summer version of a cooler. A knit sheet that can be used after exercising, bathing or while waiting around the show ring. Helps to dry your horse, and keep bugs away. Typically not appropriate for turnout.
  • Quarter sheet/exercise rug – Covers the hindquarters of your horse. Good for trail riding, warming up, or cooling out the horse to keep the back warm and dry.
  • Rainsheet – A light waterproof cover that can be worn for turnout. Can also be used as a top layer over a stable sheet or blanket. Often called a “shell” when lined.
  • Turnout blanket – A waterproof blanket with varying weights of insulation, often described as light/medium/ heavyweight.
  • Full neck/hoods – Blankets with full necks have a neck cover as part of the blanket. Hoods are a detachable neck cover that can be used with the blanket as necessary.

How to measure

While some blanket manufacturers have different measurement guidelines (it is best to check the sizing/ measurement guidelines on their websites before purchasing), the general steps to measuring your horse for a blanket are:

  1. Get a friend, and have her hold the end of a soft measuring tape at the center of your horse’s chest.
  2. Measure (in inches) from this point across your horse’s barrel to the point on his hindquarters just before his tail.
  3. Round up or down to the nearest size in the brand you are looking at, or look at the company website for a recommendation as to which you should do.

Strength and weight

At first, reading the descriptions of various blankets can be confusing. Three main points you need to pay attention to are denier, insulation/weight, and waterproofing.

The denier refers to the strength of the material in the outer layer of the blanket. This ranges from around 210 (finer thread, tighter weave) to 2100 denier (heavier thread, coarser weave). The higher the number, the stronger the blanket. Some horses are easy on their clothes, and can wear lower denier blankets without issue. More playful horses, or those with active pasture buddies, may benefit from a blanket with a stronger denier factor.

It is important to take the insulation/weight of the blanket into consideration – the higher the number, the heavier the blanket. In general, “light” is up to 150g, “medium” is around 180g to 200g, and “heavyweight” is approximately 300g to 500g. You will often see one of these terms followed by the actual number in the blanket’s description. Remember to take the blanket’s lining into consideration, as it may or may not be factored into the insulation number. A blanket with a nylon lining is lighter than a blanket with a fleece or wool lining.

Read the description of the blanket carefully! Weatherproof does not mean the same as waterproof. If your horse is going to wear the blanket outside in all types of weather, you want something that is waterproof yet breathable, with all seams taped/waterproofed as well.

A good fit

Every horse is different and a blanket’s fit is very important, especially if your horse is wearing it for extended periods of time. Ill-fitting blankets can cause rubs, wither and back pain, and can be a safety issue.

If your horse has prominent withers, you will need to pay close attention to how the blanket sits over this area. Constant pressure on the withers can make for a sore horse. Place your hand between the blanket and your horse’s wither, and ask him to lower his head (as if he was eating hay) – how much pressure is there? Watch for signs of discomfort, rubbing or white hairs. Some people need to purchase blankets with sheepskin or special padding over the wither area.

Depending on your horse’s shape, he may be prone to shoulder rubs. This can be caused by a blanket that is too large, or one that does not fit your horse’s body type well, though some horses seem to get rubs with any blanket. Make sure your blanket is properly sized for your horse – place your hand between the blanket and his shoulder, and at the top of the chest with his head lowered to check pressure. You may need to look at blankets for your horse’s body type (e.g., there are blankets made specifically for Quarter Horses). Otherwise, consider a shoulder guard.

When it comes to shoulder fit, some blankets have shoulder gussets and others do not. What you select will depend on your horse. Some require more freedom through their shoulders, while others tend to be rubbed by the gussets.

If you have a horse that’s difficult to fit, you can bet someone before you has run into the same issue and developed a solution. You can find blankets made specifically for Draft horses, Warmbloods, and Quarter Horse types. You may have to do some research and spend a bit more, but it’s worth it for the comfort of your horse.

Safety first

  • For turnout, do not use blankets not specifically designed for turnout. Blankets with few straps should be used under close supervision.
  • A blanket to be used when the horse is unsupervised in the stall or field should have some type of belly strap – either a single surcingle or double surcingles. This will help prevent shifting.
  • A blanket to be used unsupervised in the field, and ideally also the stall (depending on the type of blanket), should have leg straps or a tail strap. This will help prevent shifting, or the blanket being pulled/blown over the horse’s head in turnout.
  • Make sure leg straps and surcingles are not long enough for the horse to get a leg caught in them.
  • Leg straps should be crossed or looped in a way that prevents blanket shifting.
  • If you are layering blankets, use a sheet one size smaller for the layer underneath. This helps prevent field mates from being able to grab the lighter/weaker blanket, tearing and/or shifting it.
  • Keep an eye on horses in the field for blankets that have shifted or torn, or for straps that have broken or come undone.
  • Check your horse’s blankets daily for wear and tear. Check your horse over for any rubs or sore areas.
  • Check to make sure your horse is comfortable in his blankets during temperature/weather changes – it is especially important to make sure your horse is not sweaty or wet (faulty waterproofing) under his blankets.
  • Have a spare rainsheet available in case your main blanket gets wrecked or the waterproofing suddenly gives out.
  • Clean, repair and check the waterproofing on your blankets at least once per season.

Happy blanket shopping!