Going Under Cover

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The days get shorter, the nights get longer and the frost is on the pumpkin: it’s time for blankets, available in a variety of “new and improved” products designed to keep horses warm and cozy.

But should you blanket??Despite our best intentions, problems can arise when blankets provide too much insulation. Plus, blankets add yet another element to overall barn organization: storage can be a challenge for even the tidiest facility.

We consulted top veterinarians and horse professionals on how and why we should blanket, researched new technologies in materials, and polled barn owners and managers about innovative methods to win at “barn blanket bingo.”

When Love Hurts

Before you blanket your horses, consider why you’re doing so. For instance, what type of weather conditions exist, and what type of coat does the horse have? Most professionals caution against blanketing in many situations.

Some professionals, such as reining trainer Gail Schneider in Framingham, Mass., keeps it simple: no blankets. She tells her customers, “Don’t think you’re smarter than Mother Nature. Your definition of cold may not be the horse’s.”

Quarter Horse professional Edith Sands of Fairbanks, Alaska, also tries not to blanket. “We try to avoid unless absolutely necessary,” she says. “If one shivers, I’ll throw a blanket on at night, take off it during the day. I’ll brush a lot to fluff up the coat. A blanket can smash that down, and [the coat] is a natural insulator.”

Many people over-blanket when trying to maintain a “show coat,”says Dr. Bob Coleman, extension horse specialist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

“Many people think a heavy rug helps to limit hair growth, and that’s true to some extent, by keeping the horse warm,” says Coleman. “But, then there’s ‘too warm.’

“In cases where horses move from south to north, but haven’t had time to adapt to the change, consider how much turnout they’ll have, and that should dictate how heavy the blanket needs to be.

“Also consider whether you’re blanketing just to protect the coat from sun bleaching,” says Coleman. “Putting a too-heavy blanket on could cause the horse to get hot, then sweat, then chill when the temperature falls.” That can lead to illness.

Sharon Spier, DVM, at the University of California, Davis, says that “blankets are usually fine, but often they make us feel better than the horse. Standing all day in a heavy blanket, when the temperature rises, can be uncomfortable for a horse.”

“If one of my owners wants to keep the horse blanketed and the horse isn’t body-clipped, I recommend they use a sheet during the day and maybe a warmer blanket at night,” says Spier, who also says that she sees more problems with horses getting overly hot than cold. The exceptions:?Older, geriatric horses, who need protection from wind and driving rain. Some definitely require blanketing, says Spier.

She’s not a fan of body clipping “because the horse has hair for a reason.” If you’re not showing, Spier suggests letting the horse grow a coat. You can use a light sheet or blanket in the fall at night, so the horse won’t grow such a length of hair. But, she says, “When you do [clip], the horse definitely needs to be blanketed.”

You can also limit hair growth by putting your horse under lights with a timer, as breeders do with mares, says Spier. “Sixteen hours of light from a 200-watt incandescent bulb or two 40-watt fluorescent tubes will [simulate summer] daylight hours and hinder hair growth.”

New and Improved

If you do decide to blanket, you’ve got plenty of options. Blake Banta, president of Baker Blankets, Curvon Horse Clothing, in N.J., says that “the evolution of blankets follows outer clothing for people, trailing by 10 to 15 years. When assessing materials, we think, ‘This works for me,’ so it will probably work for the horse!”

There are three basic factors in evaluating modern blanket materials:?denier, breathability and waterproofness. Banta cautions not to get “hung up in the numbers” when it comes to denier. The term, he says, simply describes “its weight in grams of one hank of yarn,” the traditional measure of length for yarn. The higher the number, the thicker the fiber. But, he says, “Don’t think bigger is better, for the bigger the yarn, the coarser, more abrasive, which could hold more dirt. One fiber might be totally adequate at 600 denier.”

As to closures, Baker uses a metal buckle and billet and front closures. “We ask, ‘Can you take it off easily if you have gloves on; if the horse bites it when he’s bored or steps on it, will it break? ’ ”

Nina DePetris is senior buyer at Dover Saddlery in Massachusetts: Dover’s brand is Rider’s International. She echoes Banta.

“Materials improve every year, but although denier numbers get higher, that doesn’t mean they’re getting better.”

She cheers closures that are adjustable. “It’s important when you’re layering, so you can open up a bit more.”

Those terms we see on most blankets, “waterproof” and “breathable,” really do make a difference. “Sometimes, a horse can sweat and it looks like he’s rolled in something,” notes DePetris. “Breathability can help so much when the horse overheats.”

Liz Wilkinson, product specialist at WeatherBeeta in New Jersey, makes this comparison. “Whether a blanket is waterproof or not, the big thing is breathability: otherwise it’s like wearing a rubber raincoat.”

Blankets in the Barn

Blankets introduce a new element into barn management. Jane Leone, wife of grand prix show jumper Mark Leone, minimizes hassles at Ri-Arm Farm in Oakland, N.J., by buying all customer blankets in the same colors. Each set includes a cotton sheet, a Baker Blanket, which she deems “mid-weight,” and a heavyweight wool stable blanket.

Leone also likes the close-fitting bibs or shoulder guards that protect the extra-sensitive horse: manufacturers include Sleazy Sleepwear and W’underwear.

As for when to blanket, Leone also uses common-sense principles. “If I’m wearing a sweatshirt, my horse needs a blanket. If I’m wearing a t-shirt, the horse is fine, but if I come to check at night and I’m chilly, I put a sheet on. Barn employees need a natural instinct, to know each horse and what they’re like.”

If only one item of winter clothing is financially feasible, she recommends a turnout, to be worn outside or in.

At reiner Tom McCutcheon’s barn in Aubrey, Texas, Barb Wibbels oversees 100 horses; 25 are show animals. She, too, chooses customer blankets, and prefers those with a closed front and nylon outer shell.

“When it gets below 60, I’ll put a sheet on. We don’t do a lot of body clipping unless we have one that isn’t shedding out in time,” says Wibbels, who also utilizes lights in stalls.

How about the ongoing maintenance of the blankets? Basic cleanliness is a daily requirement, says United States Pony Club’s Brenda Yike. “When the horse comes in, brush the blanket’s exterior and interior, where shavings accumulate. Inspect for small tears in stitching.”

Battling the Clutter

One of the hardest aspects about blankets is where to store them, especially when they are in use.

Dover’s DePetris recommends that, “During blanket season, if barns have room, hanging a blanket all the way lengthwise is ideal, so it can breathe and dry.” The ideal placement of these systems, most have found, are either in the middle of the barn, within easy access for barn personnel, or near an exit for dressing and undressing horses on their way in and out. If you do not have enough room to store all the blankets this way, try to have at least a few lengthwise racks in order to have a place where blankets can dry out quickly.

At Ri-Arm, Leone keeps the blankets folded on bars on stall doors. Most barn owners who store blankets on the stall doors, recommend using collapsible blanket bars because when they are not in use, they do not stick out, but when blanket season hits, they can hold several blankets while allowing some air to flow around them.

So although there’s no blanket rule that applies to every horse and barn, options aplenty mean horses stay warm and dry, owners stay happy and your barn stays neat.

Where to Buy

Baker Blankets — 800-631-2236 no website

• Classic Cover-Ups — 610-932-9400; www.classiccover-ups.com

• Dover Saddlery — 800-989-1500; Rider’s International; www.doversaddlery.com

• Horseware Ireland — 800-887-6688; Rambo; www.horseware.com

• Hug Closure Horse Clothing—866-484-3487; www.blanketnet.com

• Libertyville Saddle Shop—800-872-3353; Thermo Master; www.saddleshop.com

• Miller’s—800-553-7655; www.millerharness.com

• Professional’s Choice—800-331-9421; www.profchoice.com

• Schneiders’ Saddlery—800-365-1311; Storm Shield; www.sstack.com

• Toklat—888 4 TOKLAT; www.toklat.com

• WeatherBeeta—877-927-4337; no website

Plus…(underthings)

Sleazy Sleepwear — 800-356-2799; www.ss4horses.com

W’underwear — 800-733-0919; www.wunderwear.com