Marvels of Engineering: The Horse Blanket

winterpooka_200As our neck of the Great American Southwest emerges from a rather historic weather weekend–the last time it was this wet for this long in November was in 1900–I’ve been singing the praises, early and often, of the engineers who design and execute the horse blanket.

The original concept was simple enough. Heavy blanket large enough to throw over the back of a horse, fastened in some way to keep it more or less in place. It was useful when a horse was overworked and overheated and needed to cool down more slowly than the weather and/or his coat or body condition allowed, or when he was wet and shivering and needed to dry off. It saved more than a few equine lives, and made life easier for stable staff, as well.

Then came the modern era, and modern fabrics and design concepts.

People still do dig out an old general-purpose blanket and clip or pin it on the horse who needs it, but technology has raised the whole idea to amazing heights. There are now whole wardrobes of blankets–a size, weight, shape, level of waterproofing (or not), and even color for every occasion.

Still, I’m often asked, Why?

The horse is, by nature and evolution, a steppe and tundra animal. He has a deciduous coat: extremely short and sleek in summer, then as the days grow shorter and the temperature starts to fall, he develops a full-on, thick, warm layer of plush. Then in spring that all sheds out in clumps and patches, and the summer coat reappears.

The winter coat is admirably designed to keep the horse’s big body warm at temperatures well below freezing, and the addition of a layer of snow on top provides further insulation. The loft of the coat traps heat, and the horse is perfectly comfortable.

Problems arise when the coat loses its loft–in wind and cold rain that flatten the long hairs to the skin. Then the horse has lost its natural protection. In the wild, the horse either holds on until the weather eases up and his coat dries out (often assisted by the bodies of the herd around him or her–with babies and high-rankers in the warm middle and lower-rankers on the cold edges), or he dies of exposure.

In captivity, this valuable animal gets help. He may live in a barn or shelter designed to keep out wet and cold and keep its occupants’ body heat in. Or he may be equipped with a nicely handy portable barn system–a waterproof and breathable blanket, designed to keep him warm and dry.

Blankets have evolved considerably over the past few decades. I still have in my tack shed one dating from around the late Eighties and intended for the climate in Minnesota. It’s made for a small horse, and it weighs a Lot. The outer shell is waxed canvas, to repel rain and wet. The lining is thick synthetic fleece. The straps are leather, with buckles. It’s really warm and really stiff and really, really heavy, especially when wet.

The horse who used to wear it now has one considerably warmer, much more waterproof (but also breathable, so he doesn’t turn into a wet and clammy mess when he wears it), and orders of magnitude lighter in weight. When wet it’s a bit heavier but not much, and it’s simple to clean: just hose off and hang it in the sun until the water runs off and the blanket is dry.

Even the old blanket was a wonder of design, in that it mostly managed to stay put no matter what its wearer was doing.

Things like this:


But also this:


And this:


And sometimes they put it all together in wild and wonderful ways.

The newer models do all of this and more, and if properly fitted, do it without rolling, sliding, slipping, rubbing, ripping, catching a foot in a strap, or letting the water (and the mud and what-all else) get in or under or around the blanket.

And they look so simple. A big rectangle of fabric, lining, and fill (unless it’s a rain sheet and therefore fill-free), with darts and gussets here and there. Belly straps. Buckles or fasteners in front, unless the front is sewn shut (in which case it’s put on by pulling it over the head). Something in the back, usually, to keep the works from sliding forward and off: leg straps or a tail strap.

Takes about a minute and a half to pop one on a trained horse: throw over the horse’s back, get the front taken care of, latch up the straps, and on to the next. Maybe there’s a hood to add to it, though I don’t bother with that: the horse’s neck and head are generally OK in all weathers and even wet, as long as the back and core are dry and warm–and if it’s so cold or windy that his ears will freeze, he should be in some form of shelter in any case.

For all the hours I’ve put in wrestling blankets in wind and wet, I never stop marveling at the engineering that makes those blankets work. The miracle of fabric that’s both waterproof (to keep the wet out) and breathable (to keep the horse from melting underneath–think rubber suit). The wonders of design. And the colors–I never did succumb to that pink zebra print, but one of my elegant older mares rocks this baby out of the stadium:


She can be seen from space. And she’s nice and warm and dry while she does it.




Marvels of Engineering: The Horse Blanket — 9 Comments

    • He’s actually keeping warm while he’s cooling off–a cooler is a lovely fleece thing that wicks off sweat and helps the horse get dry. Very useful when working the horse on a chilly day. I’ve been known to wrap myself in one while watching lessons in winter. Mmmm polarfleece.

  1. You could probably analyze this with Darwin. The blankets steadily evolve, getting better and better as new materials become available. Sort of a Descent of Blanket chart…

  2. The dressage horses at the otherwise all-hunter barn are the paddock peacocks. All the hunters are in drab tan plaid Baker blankets, while Sammy wears a Pessoa in electric blue plaid, Rico in deep purple, and Casimir in a snazzy Joules pastel stripe Weatherbeeta. Val over in the mare pasture is ablaze in Joules pastel polka dots.
    Hunters are soooo boring.

  3. After all this time I still have in mind the chapter in Black Beauty in which he and the stable boy race to get the doctor to attend to the mistress. BB’s so hot and so thirsty by the time they back to his stable. Inexperience stable boy allows BB to drink as much water as BB likes and leaves him wet and steaming in the stall.

    Soon BB begins to feel ill, to shiver : “I wished Dick would come back and give me my rug.” Or at least words to that effect.

    Even the first time I heard those words — before I could read them for myself (which happened soon after) — they struck me hard. What is odd is that four-year-old me would have understood what it all meant.

    Love, C.

  4. I remember the old new zealand rugs too-heavy canvas and how they could rub thru the triple crown plush lined couldn’t stay centered on the horse up to the great blankets we have today-so good that who uses stable blankets anymore? I do wonder what the generally chinese workers who make them are thnking…clothes for horses?